April 1, 2020: K-12 schools in Georgia would be closed for the remainder of the academic year. It was an outcome no one could have predicted when the news of the COVID-19 outbreak first hit the U.S. With schools and businesses shuttering their doors, many families in Athens-Clarke County were worried.
“When the pandemic hit and students were sent home for virtual learning, there was concern about it being equitable for students to participate in virtual learning, because not everyone has the same access to internet,” said Rebecca Baskam, a research professional at the University of Georgia College of Public Health and program lead for the Athens Wellbeing Project.
The Athens Wellbeing Project (AWP) is an ongoing research project which surveys local residents and provides detailed data and analysis to community leaders and institutions on a range of issues from food security to vaccination hesitancy to Wi-Fi access.
Data collected through AWP surveys conducted in 2016 and 2018 helped school district leaders pinpoint which neighborhoods needed additional support to continue learning at home.
“Because of this data, they were better able to identify potentially where there wasn’t internet access for students, and figure out solutions,” said Baskam.
The overall well-being of a community comes to light during emergency situations like the COVID-19 pandemic.
In Athens, the city and community leaders worked to combat problems faced by individuals during the pandemic with the help of data from the Athens Wellbeing Project. City leaders, for example, used the data to design the pandemic emergency food assistance program called Athens Eats Together.
Now, new data from the latest round of surveys provides a snapshot of how the pandemic has impacted Athens-Clarke County (ACC) residents. The most recent data was collected between October 2021 and February 2022, adding to the two previous rounds of data collection.
To gain insight on experiences of the Athens community during the pandemic, the phase III survey included a “COVID-19 suite of questions,” says principal investigator of the Athens Wellbeing Project and associate professor with the University of Georgia’s College of Public Health, Grace Bagwell Adams.
These questions asked about household vaccination rates, vaccine hesitancy, COVID-19 deaths, and social behaviors like whether residents wore masks.
The data revealed that 41.3% of households in Athens lost a loved one due to COVID-19.
“That was the biggest gut punch in the findings, just how prevalent it is. Half of households have lost someone, and of those, half of those losses were due to COVID,” said Bagwell Adams.
Many individuals also experienced a loss of access to health care.
21% who needed mental healthcare in the last year did not get it, up from 16% in 2019, and the rate of individuals who are uninsured increased by 69% since 2016.
“About one in four households now don’t have health insurance, and that’s the biggest statistically significant swing that concerns me. Some of that’s Covid job loss, but not a lot of it,” said Bagwell Adams.
Children are far more likely to be insured relative to adults due to PeachCare eligibility, but there has been a 50% increase in children not having their child regular well check visits, according to the new data.
Next, AWP will be partnering with Envision Athens, the team carrying out a 20-year economic development plan funded by the ACC government, to provide data to inform strategic planning for the next five years related to four focus areas: behavioral, health education and workforce development, food security, and arts and creative development.
“Partnering with Envision Athens is the transformative next step for the work of AWP, facilitating the use of our data in policy, and strategic development. Partnerships like these will allow us to improve wellbeing over the next generation in Athens,” said Bagwell Adams.
And soon, the AWP team will be lending their expertise to new well-being initiative launching in Metro Atlanta in January 2023. The Metro-Atlanta Cities Wellbeing Initiative program will be delivered by the Georgia Municipal Association in collaboration with the Atlanta Regional Collaborative for Health Improvement.
The Georgia Municipal Association is a long-time partner of the University and of the College of Public Health. GMA reached out to the AWP team for their help because “the Athens Wellbeing Project is, “an example of a wellbeing program that has seen success and has tangible results of why it is effective to have well-being programs, said Baskam, who is managing the initiative with GMA.
The program will take place in two parts. Part one will consist of educating elected officials and staff members about well-being work and how to utilize available secondary data in their well-being work.
“The second part is to create a strategy which includes short-term and long-term plans of what to do next, so that they have specific direction and goals that are tangible,” said Baskam. The goal is that participants will leave the program with action plans for continuing well-being work in their cities at the local level.
But the first step, says Bagwell Adams, thinking back to the early days of AWP, is vocabulary building.
“What public health has been talking about with health equity, with social determinants of health, and what some cities and governments were talking about as wellbeing, it’s all the same thing,” she said.
“You’re already doing public health work. We just need to call it that.”
– Chancey Phillips
Posted September 20, 2022.