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A World in Crisis

A response to COVID-19

As the world transitions to a new normal with the global outbreak of COVID-19, see how several of our experts are responding.

What is coronavirus and what is COVID-19?

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that are common in many different species of animals, including camels, cattle, cats and bats. Rarely, animal coronaviruses can infect people and then spread between people such as with MERS, SARS and now with this new virus, SARS-CoV-2, which causes the 2019 novel coronavirus disease, abbreviated COVID-19.

Putting gloves into the right hands

Researchers across the Eberly College have moved quickly to donate personal protective equipment from their laboratories to healthcare workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In March 2020, faculty and staff filled more than 10 pickup trucks, cars and SUVs with gloves, masks, face shields, goggles, shoe covers, overalls and lab coats and delivered them to WVU Medicine. Since COVID-19 has caused most scientific research to temporarily pause, supplies can now be used to offset a nationwide shortage of personal protective equipment, or PPE.

Richard Thomas, professor and chair of the Department of Biology, helped coordinate this effort across the Eberly College.

“I knew that there were shortages of PPE nationally, and when WVU Medicine put out a request I got in touch with them,” Thomas said. “I told them what we had in Biology, and it snowballed from there.”

With totals still rolling in, the C. Eugene Bennett Department of Chemistry provided more than 62,000 gloves, and the Department of Forensic and Investigative Science offered up more than 600 full-body Tyvek suits.

Donations have come from dozens of Eberly College labs working in biology, chemistry, forensics, geology and geography, physics and astronomy and psychology. Over the past several days, each of these departments inventoried their labs for any gear that would be useful for healthcare professionals.

“I’m incredibly proud of the scope and speed of this effort by our faculty and staff,” said Eberly College Dean Gregory Dunaway. “Thanks to our high volume of research activity, our laboratories have plenty of supplies, and they stepped forward with unflagging Mountaineer generosity.”

Eberly College PPE Donations
Gloves 201,000
N95 488
Other masks 2,120
Booties/shoe covers 4,800
Tyvek coveralls 640
Hats 50
Goggles 181
Safety glasses 112
Lens cleaners 600
Lab coats (disposable) 279
Lab coats (fireproof) 7
Cotton swabs 3,000
Cotton cloves 24
Face shields 4
Face shield refills 4
Bleach wipe containers 9
Hairnets, bags 100
Disinfectant concentrate, gal. 1
Sterilization drapes 400
Clean sleeves 100

Both our political past and present shape America's response to COVID-19

Chris Plein, Public Administration

One WVU policy expert suggests that we need to set aside political partisanship as the U.S. responds to the novel coronavirus. President Donald Trump declared a national emergency on Friday, March 13.

Earlier that week, the World Health Organization declared the virus a pandemic, states made emergency declarations and entities ranging from universities to professional sports leagues to public schools have shuttered or altered operations.

As of May 1, known COVID-19 cases in the U.S. reached 1,062,446 with 62,406 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Reports of tests not being widely accessible and the stringent guidelines in place to qualify for testing have further fueled the frustrations of Americans.

Chris Plein, a professor of public administration, has offered perspectives on what he considers three big questions surrounding the social, political and policy dimensions of the crisis. His research expertise is public policy formation and implementation, welfare reform and health policy.

Tensions of self-interest and public good

First, the U.S. response to COVID-19 lays bare age-old tensions between self-interest and the public good. The balancing of individual rights and liberties against actions taken in the public interest has long been a dimension in American political culture. We have seen this tension in the way that the crisis has been covered in the media, in public response, and in the often-conflicting messaging that have been sent out to the public by officials and others regarding response and action.”

Trust in public authority

“Second, mobilizing support for collective, public action for the general welfare of the country requires a level of trust and confidence in public authority. In our hyper-partisan environment, it may be even more difficult to mobilize public support, especially in a time when the capabilities of elected officials and the legitimacy of government institutions have been subjected to sustained criticism.”

Conflict across branches of government

“Third, the U.S. response to COVID-19 is taking place in our federal, intergovernmental system. This means that there may be conflict and tension between local, state and federal authority. We may see more proactive efforts in some states that may set the tone for federal response. We may see strains in the coordination of effort.”

Lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina: Some populations at higher risk during COVID-19 pandemic

Michael Zakour, Social Work

Michael Zakour, professor of social work, lived through Hurricane Katrina and studied the vulnerability and resiliency of the community following the disaster. He has observed parallels with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“An unknown question in the pandemic is ‘Will this disaster be like Katrina, when the response system collapsed, and survivors faced violence and the eventual abandonment by the country of the entire region?’ Or will Americans pull together and cooperate to end this crisis and disaster?” Zakour said. “Hurricane Katrina taught students of disaster that pulling together is not always the case. So far, the coronavirus response has seen shortfalls in effective coordination and communication.”

After observing that lack of coordination and communication – which put vulnerable populations at higher risk – before, during and after Hurricane Katrina, Zakour is concerned the same may be happening now in the U.S. response to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“As in many other disasters, certain populations will bear the brunt of exposure to the virus, infection and mortality,” Zakour said. “These vulnerable populations must not be ignored or passed over when aid is provided to deal with the novel coronavirus. The United States must try to stay ahead of the novel coronavirus disaster through coordinated action and communication that includes serving the most vulnerable members of society.”

“The United States must try to stay ahead of the novel coronavirus disaster through coordinated action and communication that includes serving the most vulnerable members of society.”
— Michael Zakour, Professor of Social Work

These populations range from the elderly and individuals with disabilities to women and girls and individuals with Chinese ancestry, where the virus originated.

“People with disabilities often suffer from serious underlying health problems and will be more susceptible to dying from the virus. This group is often underserved by the emergency system and will likely face similar hardships in this pandemic. Women and girls often suffer greatly because they are charged with caring for sick people who are unable to go to a hospital for treatment. Some women and girls may themselves become infected and die, given their responsibilities to care for others,” Zakour said. “We have already seen discrimination against people of Chinese ancestry, and on the U.S. West Coast and elsewhere people seem to be blaming the victims. Even the family members of people who have recovered from the virus have been shunned for fear they may transmit the virus.”

Zakour has written numerous articles and books on disasters and community disaster vulnerability. He was lead editor of “Creating Katrina, Rebuilding Resilience: Lessons from New Orleans on Vulnerability and Resiliency.”

Crime trends during COVID-19 pandemic will shift beyond common street crime

Henry Brownstein, Sociology and Anthropology

SOCIOLOGY AND ANTHROPOLOGY With the novel coronavirus pandemic keeping Americans indoors, preliminary data suggests it has led to a decrease in crime.

But one crime expert in the Eberly College cautions that “every crisis is an opportunity for people to discover themselves, and to reveal who they are to others.”

Serious felonies dropped 17 percent in New York City from March 16 to March 22 compared to last year, according to The Wall Street Journal. Chicago homicides dropped 29 percent the week of March 21, the day an Illinois stay-at-home order went into effect. And the Marshall Project, an online nonprofit that covers criminal justice news, reports that cities such as Detroit, Los Angeles and San Francisco have seen significant decreases in crime reports.

“With so few people going out and the streets so empty and so many stores shuttered, it is not surprising that in many places the number of reported street crimes has declined,” said Henry Brownstein, distinguished research professor of sociology who has authored several books and journal articles on crime and violence, drug markets and drugs and society. “But not all crime is street crime.”

Brownstein said the COVID-19 pandemic has provided a breeding ground for other types of criminal behavior, namely for opportunists taking advantage of the climate of panic and fear.

Woman putting PPE in boxes

“There are people selling fake cures and false hope to others who are frightened by the pandemic,” he said. “There are people soliciting donations for charities they say are helping people affected by the virus, though the charities do not actually exist. There are people who hoarded things that are in demand during the crisis, including cleaning products and medical supplies, and are trying to sell them at exorbitant prices.”

Attorneys general across the U.S. have been busy investigating numerous price-gouging claims, and online retailers like Amazon and eBay have cracked down on sellers jacking up the prices of products such as masks and hand sanitizer.

The U.S. Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission are also investigating stock trades by members of Congress that were made before the market plummeted from the COVID-19 outbreak.

Brownstein, who previously worked at the National Institute of Justice under the DOJ, said the lawmakers may have traded stocks for personal gain based on information they received about coronavirus at non-public hearings.

Brownstein also expressed concerns that an uptick in domestic violence incidents could occur with more people staying at home.

“When families are confined to their homes, it becomes more apparent that home is not a safe place for everyone,” he said. “Women and children who are routinely abused and assaulted in their own homes are left alone with their abuser.”

Seattle, San Antonio and Portland have each received more than a 20 percent increase in domestic violence calls for March, according to those cities’ police departments, Mother Jones reports.

In addition, the FBI is predicting a surge in hate crime incidents against Asians and Asian-Americans. A recent federal intelligence report stated that the FBI based its assessment on a portion of the public associating COVID-19 with China and Asian populations.

“With all the fear around the spread of the virus and the anger around social distancing, some people are looking for someone to blame,” Brownstein said. “Think of the people you already hate and blame them. More and more during the pandemic, hate has been an inspiration for criminal behavior. Since the virus was originally found in China, much of that hate, and the crime that goes with it, is predictably directed at Asians and Asian-Americans.”

Brownstein is hopeful, in a tongue-and-cheek way, that crime shall return to its rightful place once the pandemic ceases.

“The history of epidemics and pandemics tells us that one day we will have sufficient rapid testing procedures to help us determine who is infected and who is not. We will have a vaccine that people can be given on a regular basis to prevent infection. And maybe we will even have a treatment to treat people who are infected. Then we will be able to return to our old ways and habits and can stop having to worry about COVID-19 all day every day. When that time comes, maybe crime will be normal again.”

Celebrities, athletes and public figures with COVID-19 influence public perception of the virus

Elizabeth Cohen, Communication Studies

Within 48 hours of actors Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson announcing they tested positive for the novel coronavirus, one WVU expert launched into research mode.

Elizabeth Cohen, associate professor in the Department of Communication Studies, has analyzed emotional responses to media and the attachments people have to celebrities and fictional characters. Through her research, Cohen has connected celebrity effects on public health and behavior.

Now that a famous figure had tested positive for COVID-19, how would the general public’s perception of the potentially deadly virus change, if at all?

“There have now been a lot of well-known individuals testing positive for COVID-19, and of course there will be more,” Cohen said. “On one hand, these announcements may help make people understand how far-reaching the virus is. Or they can make people think ‘celebrities are just like us. If Tom Hanks can get it, I can get it.’ On the other hand, it could make it seem like not such a big deal.”

Cohen created an online experiment through Amazon Mechanical Turk, a crowdsourcing service that researchers can utilize to gather data. She assigned half of the participants to read a basic statement about COVID-19 that included verbiage that Hanks tested positive for it. The other half of the participants read the same sentence except that Hanks’ name was swapped out with a random, regular “Joe Schmo” type of name.

She then asked participants their risk assessment of COVID-19, and whether they thought they were more susceptible to the virus or more concerned about it spreading to their loved ones after reading the statements.

Cohen plans to continue studying the issue and will eventually publish her findings.

“There’s evidence that celebrities are indicators of what’s acceptable,” Cohen said. “I think here we’re seeing an increase of risk but not necessarily severity, with Tom Hanks as an example. Knowing a celebrity has it raises a level of awareness.”

Hanks and his spouse, Wilson, were the first major celebrities to announce they’d tested positive for COVID-19. Idris Elba, star of “The Wire” and “Luther,” revealed he tested positive on Monday (March 16). Several athletes, including NBA superstars Kevin Durant and Rudy Gobert, have also tested positive.

Cohen referenced how the public began to perceive HIV from a more compassionate, understanding viewpoint when Magic Johnson announced his retirement from the NBA in 1991 after contracting the virus.

“There were at least 20 studies in the early 90s that came out looking at how it affected the perceptions and behaviors toward HIV,” she said.

The same happened with suicide and mental illness following the death of comedian Robin Williams in 2014.

“Whether you want to believe it or not, celebrities have an effect on people’s social norms,” Cohen said.

Recently, she’s studied the perceptions of vaping and preliminary results found that showing celebrities vaping made it more acceptable.

Even the president, Donald Trump, and his actions can influence how Americans react to the threat of coronavirus, Cohen added.

“He’s a celebrity, too,” she said. “And he has changed over the last few weeks. He pushed back on being tested when he first had the opportunity. But then he got tested. How he responds to it himself can be very influential on the public’s behaviors.”

To keep our Mountaineer family safe, WVU extended spring break for a second week and then moved classes online for the remainder of the spring and the summer semesters. On May 16, WVU will hold Mountaineer Graduation Day, a virtual commencement experience for graduates, and follow up with an in-person celebration in December.

Our highest priority is the health and safety of our campus and our community. Information about COVID-19 continues to evolve, and WVU is updating protocols and guidelines accordingly. For more information about WVU’s response to the coronavirus, visit