When Hurricane Harvey flooded most of Houston and a large swath of Galveston County, the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University was there to collect information from area residents about how they were affected.
What were their immediate needs? How badly did their neighborhood flood? What demographic did they represent?
This real-time data was collected and shared with local health officials, governments, housing advocates and other stakeholders trying to quickly quantify and understand nuances of the storm’s fallout.
Marie Lynn Miranda, former provost at Rice University, a professor of statistics and provost-elect at the University of Notre Dame, was there and played a key role in creating the Hurricane Harvey Registry, a way to survey survivors, help design programs and refine responses to future disasters.
Then came COVID-19, the public health disaster that no one predicted or knew how to handle.
“We’re all trying to make sense of this crazy world and this crazy time,” Miranda said. “We’re trying to do something useful.”
Drawing from the technology used to build the Hurricane Harvey Registry, Miranda and others at the institute found that the model was flexible enough to use for collecting COVID-19 information.
The result is the COVID-19 Registry, open now for anyone, infected or not, who is willing to spend about 10 minutes filling out a simple survey of their experience during the crisis, thus adding to a picture of the community and how it has been impacted.
“We shifted over to this totally different topic and came up with different questions to fit it,” Miranda said.
Launched in mid-April, the registry so far has surveyed 4,300 people and the collated data has revealed a series of important things about how the virus has affected communities in the Greater Houston-Galveston area.
“Maybe the first and most important thing is that among the people exhibiting symptoms consistent with COVID-19, the proportion getting tested is quite small,” Miranda said.
And while we hear through the 24-hour news cycle that there isn’t enough testing, the responses gathered by the registry refine that information into more personal and usable data.
“Of 1,095 who responded and said, ‘I’ve had a fever some time since January 20, only 115 have been tested,” Miranda said. “Of those not tested, 853 didn’t even try to get a test and 127 tried and couldn’t get tested.”
Backing up what health departments have already communicated to the public, the registry information might be used to identify unknown barriers to testing.
The second thing the surveys have shown is that the mental health impacts of COVID-19 are significant, Miranda said.
“Of about 4,300 surveyed, about 23 percent say that they are experiencing feelings consistent with moderate to severe anxiety,” she said.
Putting the same question to health care workers and first responders — people who might be assumed to have a stronger defense against mental health complications related to illness — the results are similar, Miranda said.
Some 22 percent of those responders also have experienced feelings consistent with moderate to severe anxiety, something important for them and the agencies they work for to know, she said.
The economic impact of the crisis comprises a large area of the questionnaire, quantifying whether someone in a household has lost income or is having trouble paying the rent, along with other information about stresses that can have dire consequences if not addressed.
“We’re finding that the economic impact is being felt pretty broadly but is disproportionately high among black and Hispanic populations,” Miranda said.
For example, on a question about paying the rent, the total who said they were having difficulty was 7 percent; but broken down by race, the number was 5 percent for non-Hispanic whites and 14 percent for Hispanics.
Among the whole population of those surveyed, 10 percent said they were having difficulty paying bills. Among whites, 8 percent had difficulty; among blacks, 24 percent and 14 percent of Hispanics.
The survey has also shown promising results in terms of personal behaviors such as washing hands more frequently, wearing a mask and staying away from crowds.
“We’re seeing that the uptake of people on the critical behavior changes that we’ve really needed is really good,” Miranda said.
The survey will be up indefinitely and everyone is invited to participate, Miranda said.
In Galveston, Lance Hallberg of the Sealy Center for Environmental Health and Medicine at University of Texas Medical Branch is reaching out to ask locals to participate.
To take the survey, go to https://kinder.rice.edu/covid-19-registry.