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Moving Forward: Mitigating the Impact of COVID-19 on the Biomedical Workforce

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2 years 1 month
11.17.20 By Marie A. Bernard
Writing
Credit: Andreas Breitling

Moving Forward: Goals and Approaches for Mitigating the Impact of COVID-19 on the Biomedical Workforce

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic go beyond a direct health effect and can impact individuals at both personal and institutional levels. As we’ve discussed, these changes can disproportionately and negatively impact individuals from underrepresented groups (URGs). Establishing effective efforts to mitigate these outcomes requires that we first understand how various groups have been affected.

Building an evidence-base for future approaches

Understanding how individuals from URGs have been affected can be achieved through data collection instruments such as surveys. Using this approach, we can determine the effect that the pandemic has had on issues such as family & childcare duties, physical distancing challenges, self-reported experiences of discrimination (e.g., Asian and Asian-American researchers), economic struggles, research disruptions, and instances of incivility/harassment.

In conjunction with various NIH offices, my office conducted the NIH Workforce COVID-19 Impact Survey in July of this year to assess the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the NIH workforce [1]. The goal of this survey is to inform our understanding of the current workplace environment and help develop strategies addressing COVID-19 related inequities within the NIH workforce. Stay tuned for the results of our survey!

Many other ICs at the NIH have taken the charge to collect data about the impact of COVID-19. For example, the NIH-funded Rare Diseases Clinical Research Network launched an online survey to understand the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on people with rare diseases [2]. The NIH Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR) has also compiled a list of data collection instruments that can be used to assess the behavioral and social science impact of COVID-19 [3].

In addition to surveys, the NIH is also exploring alternative methods of collecting data through the mechanism of Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics for Underserved Populations (RADx-UP) initiatives. The overall goal of these programs is to understand the factors that have led to the disproportionate burden of the COVID-19 pandemic on underserved populations, and to ultimately decrease any disparities. For example, one of these initiatives, NOT-OD-20-120 aims to fund research projects that focus on collecting data through community collaborations or partnerships. Another RADx-UP initiative, NOT-OD- 20-119, focuses on understanding the social, ethical and behavioral implications surrounding COVID-19 testing and the acceptance of a virus, if or when one becomes available. To address the expected impacts of COVID-19 on the scientific workforce, RADx-UP projects are also strongly encouraged to support early stage investigators, specifically targeting the ability to enhance diversity in their research workforce.

Finding Solutions

Equipped with data about how individuals from URGs have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, we can turn our attention to designing interventions.

It can be informative here to look at how the approach of gathering data can inform the design of interventions in equity-related issues. My office administered the NIH Workplace Climate and Harassment Survey in January 2019 [4]. As you may expect, many of the recommended solutions informed by the gathered data include a top-down approach of modifying the environment to support situations that mitigate the problem. However, the proposed interventions also shared a common thread of providing support to those individuals that were disproportionately affected. We might similarly expect solutions to the disproportionate effect of the COVID-19 pandemic to include a mix of systemic changes and individual support.

Understanding the reasons behind the disparity in the COVID-19 infection and mortality rates may allow the design and implementation of effective interventions. For example, the value of physical distancing has been recommended as a method to slow the spread of the virus. However, the ability to maintain physical distancing is a privilege that is disproportionally accessible [5]. Some racial and ethnic groups are more likely to live in crowded urban settings where physical distancing can take a greater and more deliberate effort [6]. In these cases, approaches that involve communities (people who live in a geographical area) can be especially effective because they ensure that regionally-appropriate measures can be taken.

Finding solutions in the academic environment will depend on a clear understanding of what effects have occurred. For example, entry into the biomedical workforce may be detrimentally affected by undergraduate and graduate students who are missing out on critical research exposure during a time when their career interests are forming. Expanding and adapting existing training grants to accommodate these missed opportunities may provide support for individuals from URGs during this decisive time in their early careers.

Parting Thoughts

The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionally impacted individuals from URGs in areas spanning from academics to health.

As we build an evidence base and devise corresponding approaches to address the inequities that have developed, it’s important to remember that these disparities predate the pandemic. While it is a laudable goal to attempt to mitigate these inequities, we can also aim higher and view our efforts as an opportunity to reset.

Instead of trying to meet the standards of the system we used to have, we can instead design solutions that have the potential to address the underlying issue at their core, that the pandemic has only exacerbated. These solutions can be found using the lens of equity, illuminating the need to provide each group with the resources needed to achieve equal results.

1. NIH Scientific Workforce Diversity Office. NIH Workforce COVID-19 Impact Survey. 2020; Available from: https://diversity.nih.gov/building-evidence/COVID-workplace-survey.
2. Rare Diseases Clinical Research Network. Impact of COVID-19 on People Living with Rare Diseases and Their Families. 2020; Available from: https://www.rarediseasesnetwork.org/covidsurvey.
3. NIH Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research. COVID-19 OBSSR Research Tools 2020; Available from: https://www.nlm.nih.gov/dr2/COVID-19_BSSR_Research_Tools.pdf.
4. Valantine, H.A. NIH Workplace Climate and Harassment Survey. [cited 2020 September 14]; Available from: https://diversity.nih.gov/building-evidence/harassment-survey.
5. Yancy, C.W., COVID-19 and African Americans. JAMA, 2020. 323(19): p. 1891-1892. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2020.6548.
6. Webb Hooper, M., A.M. Nápoles, and E.J. Pérez-Stable, COVID-19 and Racial/Ethnic Disparities. JAMA, 2020. 323(24): p. 2466-2467. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2020.8598.

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