Tackling coronavirus from every angle

Faculty from all seven of SDSU's colleges have rose to the occasion during the global COVID-19 pandemic. In dozens of projects - totaling more than $8.6 million in funding - researchers are analyzing how COVID-19 operates and spreads, how the pandemic affects our mental health and how communities are coping in the midst of crisis. Our faculty are developing best practices for testing, contact tracing, health care and education, and working diligently to bring many of these solutions to vulnerable communities here in San Diego and across the globe.

College of Health and Human Services

Eric Post, a professor in the School of Exercise and Nutritional Sciences, is studying the preparedness and challenges of athletic trainers at the NCAA Division I, II, and III levels as colleges and universities resume sport participation during the COVID-19 pandemic.

School of Nursing professors Amanda Choflet and Judy Dye are collaborating with Sharp HealthCare to better understand the effect of COVID-19 on the stress, coping and anxiety levels of nurses. They will conduct an anonymous survey and analyze the relationships between the pandemic and mental health outcomes in nurses. By comparing outcomes across specialties, they will identify high-risk groups and work with the health system to prepare community-level interventions.

Public health researchers Hala Madanat, Susan Kiene, and Eyal Oren are leading a $5 million National Health Institute-funded project to increase uptake of testing in underserved communities. In San Diego, Latinx residents are three times more likely than white residents to become infected with the disease, and they account for 61% of local hospitalizations, according to county figures. The research team is working to curb these disparities and improve outcomes for underserved communities. The effort, dubbed “Communities Fighting COVID!,” aims to test 42,000 people in 14 months.

Reducing disparities

“This has real potential to mitigate the pandemic here in San Diego and greatly reduce health disparities and poor outcomes,” said Interim Vice President for Research and Innovation Hala Madanat. “We are laying the groundwork for a successful coronavirus vaccine rollout, building thoughtful and sustainable ways to reach vulnerable people.”  


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 covid testing


Lianne A. Urada, a professor in the School of Social Work, and a team of graduate students are conducting a "COVID-19 Mental Health and Wellness Survey" that will examine how the pandemic is affecting social workers, students and faculty self-care practices and ability to teach. Findings may inform social work education, policy and practices.

JoAnn Silkes, a professor in the School of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences, is working to establish a reliable way of administering language tests remotely to patients with stroke-induced language disorders. The project was motivated by COVID-19 stay-at-home orders and quarantine, when in-person assessments were replaced with video assessments.

School of Public Health faculty Guadalupe X. Ayala and Kristen J. Wells are leading a project to encourage participation in efforts aimed at minimizing and preventing the spread of COVID-19 in vulnerable communities. They will create a multi-channel communication campaign to promote COVID-19 testing, vaccine trial enrollment and vaccine uptake and identify hard-to-reach patients in San Diego and Imperial Counties. Their $200,000 project is funded by the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities.

“COVID-19 is a novel virus that demands effective nurse decision-making under unique circumstances.” said Nibbelink.

School of Nursing professors Christine W. Nibbelink and Willa Fields are exploring factors that influence acute care nurse decision-making when caring for patients with COVID-19, such as patient deterioration assessments. The research team is surveying acute care nurses virtually. Their qualitative research will explore previously unknown factors that guide nurse decision-making during a pandemic.

Thirteen million people in the U.S. may have latent tuberculosis. For these individuals, contracting COVID-19 could activate the bacterium and lead to a more severe form of the disease. Faramarz Valafar, a professor in the School of Public Health, is conducting a multi-cohort study to investigate the synergy between TB, COVID-19 and AIDS, and their rates of transmission. 

tb xray

The relationship between COVID-19 and TB

“We have already seen the synergy between TB and AIDS, so it’s a distinct possibility,” said genomics expert and TB researcher Faramarz Valafar. “While having TB could make people more susceptible to COVID-19, the coronavirus can also help spread TB much faster, acting as a vehicle of transmission.”

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Eyal Oren, a professor in the School of Public Health, is working with clinical partners in San Diego to collect information on COVID-19 cases in order to understand who is more likely to test positive for COVID-19 depending on characteristics like age, gender, ethnicity or occupation. His $15,000 project is funded by San Diego County Health and Human Services. 

School of Public Health researchers Richard M. Gersberg and Goran Bozinovic are studying COVID-19 shed into San Diego wastewater. Their $4,000 project is funded by a local water district. Such testing has not occurred in San Diego, but in other areas studies have demonstrated a correlation between concentrations of SARS-CoV-2  wastewater and COVID-19 clinical case reports. The researchers are analyzing historical wastewater samples from the San Diego region and correlating results with clinical case data provided by San Diego County Health and Human Services for evidence of past and future SARS-CoV-2 circulation.

Surabhi Bhutani, a professor in the School of Exercise and Nutritional Sciences, is examining the relationship between loss of smell and taste and COVID-19. In partnership with colleagues, she has developed an international questionnaire to assess perception in smell, taste and chemesthesis before and during COVID-19. Preliminary findings indicate that in 4,039 participants diagnosed with COVID-19, smell, taste and chemesthesis was significantly reduced.

In another analysis of 15,000 questionnaire participants, Bhutani and colleagues found that smell loss during illness is the best predictor of COVID-19 status, This study resulted in the development of a COVID-19 rating tool that may be used to screen for recent smell loss.

Bhutani is also considering the effect of home confinement during COVID-19 on weight gain. Researchers have found people ate more food and became more sedentary during quarantine. Factors like boredom, cravings and high sleepiness led people to eat unhealthy and be sedentary, while greater self-control, positive mood and low sleepiness led to better health behaviors. The research team is collecting a second wave of data from the same people to understand whether body weight and related health behaviors changed during quarantine.

There has been limited research investigating adolescent mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic or previous pandemics. Nursing professor Young-Shin Lee is studying how adolescents are experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on daily life, including anxiety, depression and academic performance. She is surveying middle and high school students in Southern California.

SDSU’s School of Public Health is partnering with the County of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency to advance the county’s COVID-19 contact tracing program in underserved communities. The $3 million project, led by public health professors Hala Madanat and Corinne McDaniels-Davidson, allows SDSU faculty to train and recruit community health workers to support the county’s disease control activities and to identify individuals believed to have come into contact with those diagnosed with COVID-19.

Containing the spread

"The importance of quickly and effectively identifying those at risk of contracting the virus to inform them and ensure they follow specific guidelines cannot be underscored enough. These efforts will undoubtedly help us to contain the potential spread of COVID-19,” said SDSU President Adela de la Torre. “This partnership-based effort is crucial for individual and community health as our city and state move forward with plans to reactivate our economy."


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As COVID-19 causes health care practitioners to move appointments online, School of Nursing professor Philip Greiner is working to improve the quality of telehealth access in Imperial County. In partnership with primary care partner Clinicas de Salud del Pueblo, he is overseeing development of best practices for telehealth, training workers and funding necessary equipment. His work is funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for $90,625 as a part of the CARES Act passed by congress in response to the pandemic. 

College of Sciences

Biology professor David Lipson is collaborating with San Diego biotechnology company Menon Biosensors and University of California, San Diego researchers to develop a new COVID-19 test using a combination of molecular biology and nuclear magnetic resonance technology. They aim to create a high throughput testing system that circumvents the need for standard real-time polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing.

College of Sciences psychology professor Jean Twenge and Florida State University colleague Thomas E. Joiner compared levels of mental distress experienced by U.S. adults during the pandemic to pre-pandemic distress levels. Their study, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, found that during the pandemic adults were eight times more likely to experience mental distress compared to adults in 2018. Twenge is also working on a study of mental health and time use among adolescents during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Chemistry professor Erica Forsberg is studying blood serum samples from Sharp HealthCare. She will perform untargeted metabolomics, looking for novel metabolites and biomarkers associated with COVID-19. She wants to understand unique biological mechanisms in COVID-19 positive patients.

Chemistry professor Byron Purse and his lab are launching a new project that uses fluorescent probes to search for inhibitors of SARS-CoV-2 replication. His lab is applying its expertise on fluorescent modifications of DNA and RNA to create methods for studying the replicative processes of coronaviruses. Other molecules that inhibit viral replication form the basis of possible drug leads, and fluorescence-based methods are very valuable for identifying these inhibitors quickly and efficiently.

Psychology researcher Keith Horvath is studying how substance use and HIV may impact COVID-19 infections. He is researching how these factors interact with SARS-CoV-2 and how they impact pathogen levels by dysregulating the gut-immune system. His work is funded by a $100,000 grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. He is wokring with colleagues Adam Carrico (University of Miami) and Sabina Hirshfield (SUNY, Downstate Health Sciences University).

Psychology professors Gregory Talavera and Linda Gallo are studying the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic upon the health and well-being of Latinx residents of the South Bay region of San Diego. The research team is surveying some 2,200 participants on the psychosocial and socio-economic impact of the pandemic, as well as COVID-19 health status, testing, hospital admissions and recovery.  

Virology researchers Forest Rohwer and Naveen Vaidya are collecting and analyzing environmental samples for COVID-19. The research team is developing mathematical and computational models to predict COVID-19 risk and trends in different parts of San Diego. The project informs public agencies about how the virus spreads and determines if there are environmental reservoirs where the virus thrives. Their work is funded by a $200,000 Rapid Response Grant from the National Science Foundation.


Understanding the virus

“In addition to improving our current knowledge of SARS-CoV-19, this research will be important for the continuing response to CoVID-19 and future pandemics,” said viral ecologist Forest Rohwer.  “This study will help us understand the ecology of viral-human interactions on surfaces, as well as train the next-generation of field virologists and modelers.”

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SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, can remain viable in aerosols for more than three hours. Virologist John Mokili is conducting a surveillance of the virus in the air of certain classrooms, labs and dormitories at SDSU, including rooms recently occupied by people who tested positive for COVID-19.

College of Education

Charlene Holkenbrink-Monk, a doctoral student in the College of Education, is surveying students at a San Diego charter K-12 school to collect and analyze their perceptions of how the school responded to the pandemic. She aims to ensure students and teachers are supported through a new and unprecedented teaching and learning experience.

Laura Owen, a school counseling adjunct faculty member, is addressing COVID-19 melt. Owen is an expert in summer melt, a term that refers to high school seniors who are academically qualified, have been accepted to college and signaled their intent to enroll, but who do not show up on any campus the semester after they graduate high school. She is addressing the decline in fall 2020 federal student aid applications and renewals and college enrollment rates, which are now being referred to as the COVID-melt. The project is funded by a $27,358 grant from the District of Columbia College Access Program (DC-CAP) and will expand its use of a two-way text messaging program designed to effectively communicate with students, improve student engagement and outcomes and address the barriers on student postsecondary pathways.

Owen has also designed a model to address the impact of COVID-19 on current school counselor practice. As part of a $35,000 grant from Michigan College Access Network, Owens is developing a fellows program to help school counselors in Michigan support college and career readiness and postsecondary planning during COVID-19. 

College of Engineering

Several SDSU engineering professors and their students created low-cost assisted breathing devices as a part of a U.S. Department of Defense Hack-a-Vent Challenge in March. Mechanical engineer Kevin Wood and his lab created a prototype that can be assembled with readily available parts to help hospitals in case of a surge in very ill patients needing ventilator assistance. 

ventilator project

Creative, low-cost solutions

“We have researchers who are showing creativity and initiative in trying to help with the pandemic, with low-cost options,” said former Vice President for Research Stephen Welter. “This skill base is wonderful for the region and the nation to draw upon during these testing times.” 

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Civil, construction & environmental engineering professors Natalie Mladenov and Matthew Verybyla, along with public health professor Kari Sant, are measuring SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater and evaluating its persistence in water. The researchers use spiking and degradation experiments, combined with sample collection from waterways with known wastewater contamination, to better understand the persistence of SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater and surface water. The $16.700 project is funded by the California State University COAST program and San Diego River Conservancy. 

Engineering professor Kee S. Moon and a diverse group of researchers are working on an SDSU Big Ideas project to create a lung digital health platform. COVID-19 has led to a permanent shift toward virtual health care and other innovations that reduce human-to-human contact, and Moon’s project will provide the ability to easily collect and understand the lung health information of people and quickly and remotely connect health care systems to health care providers, including overwhelmed hospitals. The benefits of continuous health monitoring – even when a person shows no signs of illness – offers a significant paradigm shift in future health care. 

College of Arts and Letters

The Center for Human Dynamics in the Mobile Age developed a comprehensive resource database to help monitor and visualize outbreak patterns in San Diego County using big data, GIS and social media. The Research HUB offers six areas of collected data, including vulnerability maps, San Diego ZIP code maps, timelines that track major policies and events for 16 major cities, and SMART dashboards that use social media and keywords to monitor real-time information. The “Vulnerability Map” visualizes and maps diabetes-related emergency department discharge information by age and location in San Diego County.

Visualizing the virus

“These web apps can help San Diegans get a clear picture about the challenges and problems we are facing now in our local communities. It will also reduce the spread of incorrect information in San Diego regions," said Ming-Hsiang Tsou, director of SDSU's Center for Human Dynamics in the Mobile Age. "The Research HUB... could be instrumental to national and international stakeholders for public health response planning."

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the hub


Geography professor and Center for Information Convergence and Strategy co-director André Skupin amassed and analyzed data to create a public resource on coronavirus diseases. Before COVID-19 resulted in a shut down of much of the country, Skupin began sifting through thousands of documents related to coronaviruses, using SDSU Library’s Web of Science database. Skupin analyzed the data by focusing on bibliometric content from author-chosen keywords, and compiled it to swiftly develop a publicly accessible website and knowledge map.

An interdisciplinary team of SDSU researchers affiliated with the Center for Human Dynamics in the Mobile Age is collaborating with an international group of colleagues to collect and track information about social behaviors, travel and public health policies during the pandemic. SDSU researchers built the “Track IT COVID-19 Screening [email protected],” a large-scale survey seeking input from respondents from all over the world to help track the spread of the disease and provide a clearer picture of how people across the world experience the pandemic. The group wants to help educate public health organizations, decision makers and the general public as these groups address policies related to symptoms, social distancing, policy measures and social behaviors related to COVID-19.

Economist Joseph Sabia co-authored a study that explored the impact of President Donald Trump’s 2020 presidential campaign kickoff rally on physical distancing and COVID-19 related outcomes. Researchers used anonymized smartphone data to track likely rally goers to their home counties, and did not detect spikes in COVID-19 cases in areas that drew larger numbers of rally attendees. 


Investigating risks

“Our work emphasizes the importance of offsetting behavioral effects in understanding the community health effects of large gatherings,” said SDSU researcher Joseph Sabia.

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College of Professional Studies & Fine Arts

Colter Ray, a professor in the School of Communication, is examining loneliness trends during the COVID-19 pandemic and studying whether certain groups of people are more likely to experience loneliness. Using a series of online questionnaires distributed during the early months of the pandemic, this study inspects how people's experiences of loneliness during the pandemic change over time. Early results show that people are not reporting increases in loneliness over time; however, certain life situations are more likely to be associated with increased feelings of loneliness during the pandemic. For example, those who live alone and are not in a romantic relationship report the highest levels of loneliness. Ray's research has also shown that as people report greater levels of loneliness, the amount of compassion felt towards those affected by COVID-19 decreases.


School of Communication professor Lourdes Martinez and School of Public Health researcher Eyal Oren published a study in the American Journal of Public Health in October 2020 that analyzed tweets during San Diego's Hepatitis A outbreak in 2016 and 2017. Researchers say lessons learned from the outbreak about misinformation during a health crises can be applied to COVID-19 and possibly stem the current tide of misinformation and reverse direction with proactive engagement on social media. 

Barbara Mueller, a professor in the School of Journalism and Media Studies, is examining consumer responses toward COVID-19 corporate social responsibility advertisements. Investigators are comparing consumer responses from Germany and the U.S, across four different generations, including Gen Z, Millennial, Gen X and Boomer. 

Lourdes Martinez, a professor in the School of Communication, is studying information acquisition, beliefs, attitudes, experiences of symptoms and behaviors of adults who disclose a COVID-19 diagnosis on social media. Findings can help inform the design of future COVID-19 interventions. 

Shawn Flanigan and Megan Welsh, professors in the School of Public Affairs, are surveying unsheltered homeless to understand how people are coping and surviving during shelter-in-place orders, which have disrupted access to needed services and resources.. Their project is funded by a $16,050 grant from the California Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program. 

people outside

Impact on the unsheltered

“We’re very interested in shelter uptake and service uptake. With COVID-19, there’s been a move to want people in shelters and bringing people in hotel rooms. We’re curious how often people are being reached with those offers and how often they take up those offers. Do they want to take advantage of them? Or are they being pressured to by the police?” said public affairs researcher Shawn Flanigan.

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Fowler College of Business 

Vivian Huangfu, a professor of management information systems, is exploring factors that influence the number of confirmed cases for COVID-19. She is collecting and analyzing data on weather information, COVID-19 related tweets and case numbers.

Xialu Liu, a professor of management information systems, is using statistical methods to analyze how government actions impact the spread of COVID 19.  

Professors Martina Musteen and Ami Doshi are working on an SDSU Big Idea Initiative that addresses food insecurity -- a global problem exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. To encourage environmentally regenerative and socially equitable food production, distribution and consumption, the researchers are looking at alternative collaboration and business models that are inclusive and have the capacity to bring about fundamental change. Faculty will study food ecosystems and best practices across related industry domains, with the hope of brokering new ideas and setting in motion a lasting, sustainability-based policy agenda to curb food insecurity.