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WCU Stories

Faculty, students collaborate on Health Equity Data Consortium

health equity data

From left to right, students Lola Hickey, Zekariah Lackey, Anjili Romero and Yiqing Yang, associate professor of sociology.

By Julia Duvall

Although it has been four years since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the effects are still being felt around the world.

Especially in rural communities that do not have adequate access to health resources.

This is where the Health Equity Data Consortium comes in, to try and bridge the gap between underserved communities and access to health care by conducting the COVID-19 Impact Survey, a statewide project funded by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

Yiqing Yang, an associate professor of sociology at WCU, along with several sociology students, are collaborating with WCU faculty members Katie Pincura, director of the health sciences program and Terri Durbin, director of the School of Nursing.

Together, they represent WCU as part of 11 universities within the state tasked with engaging faculty and students to assess the impact the pandemic has had on North Carolina residents.

The purpose of the statewide project is to expand COVID-19 data surveillance into North Carolina’s six Medicaid regions. WCU is part of region one.

Through this surveillance, the state can gain a more comprehensive understanding of how the pandemic impacted social, health and economic outcomes in historically marginalized communities.

“While the consortium primarily consists of historically black colleges and universities, WCU and Appalachian State are involved to represent the Western North Carolina population,” Pincura said.

Data was collected from the fall 2023 semester until mid-February of the current spring semester.

“The project resonates deeply with my expertise as a medical sociologist specializing in social determinants of health,” Yang said. “What truly excites me is the collaborative and interdisciplinary nature of the project, which brings together multiple universities, community organizations and both undergraduate and graduate students.”

The project provides crucial insights into the specific health impacts of the pandemic in North Carolina, informing targeted interventions and policies to address disparities.

“This approach reflects a genuine commitment to diversity, equity and community engagement,” Yang said. “Moreover, it offers a remarkable opportunity to contribute to meaningful research aimed at addressing health disparities and promoting health equity in North Carolina.”

Five undergraduate students majoring or minoring in sociology were recruited last fall as paid research assistants for the project. They received training on data collection from experts at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina A&T University and NCHHS, as well as researchers from other participating universities.

“The project entails funding for paid student researchers, which allowed us to recruit from the WCU student body to support our efforts,” Pincura said. “We are still in the process of analyzing the data we've collected by surveying Jackson and surrounding counties. The team will be presenting our results this summer.”

The student team was actively involved in data collection, conducting phone calls in the call center and attending community events across WNC to set up tables, aiming to attract survey participants.

“Our students continue to actively participate in regional meetings where they present their reflections and learnings from the project,” Yang said. “They will soon travel again to the hub at N.C. A&T in Greensboro to meet Center for Disease Control officials there for a site visit.”

Anjili Romero, a senior from Statesville, is proud to be able to make a difference in the lives of those who share her heritage.

“Being able to work with the Spanish-speaking community through the tabling events and outreach has been very rewarding,” Romero said.

Like Romero, Zekariah Lackey, a sophomore from Clayton, is thrilled to have the opportunity to make an impact.

“As part of the call center, I get to help people of color get access to resources related to emergency events like the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Lola Hickey, a junior from Oklahoma, was thrilled to have the opportunity to see different parts of WNC through this project’s tabling events.

“This unique project has let me see so many different parts of our region,” she said. “I also really loved engaging with the community and representing our region at events.”

Yang expressed her gratitude to Dave Kinner, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and the Department of Anthropology and Sociology for their support of this project. 

“I feel incredibly fortunate to be part of this opportunity and am genuinely grateful for the chance to contribute,” Yang said. “As a methods person who teaches methods of social research, being involved in a renowned, large-scale collaborative survey like this has always been a dream of mine. Now, as we enter the data analysis phase, the excitement only grows. I am eagerly anticipating analyzing the combined data collected from over 10,000 responses statewide.”

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