WVU creates rapid research response project to learn about the spread of COVID-19 through Appalachia


MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – West Virginia University has been taking quick action to study the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on Appalachians through a rapid response research project.

Dr. Daniel Totzkay, an Assistant Professor of communication studies, is working on the research project, which was funded by the National Science Foundation and is being spearheaded by the WVU Eberly College of Arts and Sciences, according to a WVU press release.

Totzkay explained that the main goal is to measure Appalachian’s responses to the COVID-19 pandemic over time, specifically in terms of how risky they perceived it to be and how they went about gathering information about the virus.

“Are they seeking out additional information about COVID-19 and what to do about it,” Totzkay asked. “Are they avoiding that information? And then, sort of, who, or what, or where are they going to for that? Maybe their interpersonal relations, media, social media specifically, and things like that.”

The research team started the project when stay-at-home orders were going into effect and will continue for another couple of weeks, meaning the project will examine a two month period, Totzkay said. So far, they have sent out online surveys to a representative sample of roughly 6,000 Appalachians. They send out a new survey to the same people every two weeks and each time they have fewer respondents giving feedback. When it’s all said and done, the team expects to have 700-1,000 people who responded to every single survey, the professor said.

By plotting these responses, Totzkay said, they will be able to better understand where Appalachians get their information, their perception of risk and perhaps correlations between the two. Other factors like access to healthcare and partisanship will also factor in the research.

Dr. Daniel Totzkay

Totzkay said they are hoping to use the data they collect to better understand how to disseminate information during the next inevitable crisis.

That’s certainly an output we’re hoping to take from this, in terms of, sort of, seeing how folks are already responding to this current pandemic, this current crisis, which just dropped in our laps, so to speak. We didn’t really have much of a response ready for it, so how can we take how people are actually responding and behaving to this pandemic and the different precautionary measures put in place by state and local governments, also the federal government? How can we take their responses to those things and then plan ahead for the inevitable next time?

Dr. Daniel Totzkay, Assistant Professor of Communications Studies

Many scientists and researchers are already projecting that there will be a second deadly wave of COVID-19 later in the year, specifically in regions like Appalachia that weren’t heavily hit in the first wave, so Appalachians need to be ready, Totzkay said.

Unfortunately, a lot of the media narrative has focused on larger, urban and densely populated areas, which makes sense, he explained, but does not do much to help Appalachia.

The information available right now is not reflecting the the lived experiences in regions like Appalachia and that is what this research will aim to change, Totzkay detailed.

“We’re so happy to be able to find some silver lining in a big crisis like this, where can spotlight the responses of Appalachians specifically, who tend to get overlooked in public health crises like this, especially now when we weren’t hit as hard as other regions,” Totzkay explained. “But being able to take that time and get the attention up in this region, to highlight the responses and ideally capturing some of the resilience of the communities that have really stepped up to take part in throughout the pandemic and hopefully use that to protect these folks the next time that we inevitably have to deal with something like this.”

U.S. Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) have both expressed their support and contentment with the implications of the research project for Appalachia.

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