Go Back

Crisis Communication

Date Published: 08/14/2020 [Source]

The 12 seniors taking Infectious Disease Epidemiology this spring weren't required to attend the weekly videoconference class meetings set up when coursework went remote due to COVID-19. But Chrysan Cronin, assistant professor and director of public health, says they all showed up routinely anyway—as did many of the 11 students who'd taken the course last fall.

As a doctoral student, Cronin was most interested in infectious disease research, but living far from Johns Hopkins labs would make that logistically challenging. A mentor helped steer her toward research on radon, a radioactive gas that can cause lung disease when inhaled at high concentrations over long periods of time. Pennsylvania's buildings have some of the highest radon levels in the world. Cronin found an entry point when she noticed a wide variety in radon testing rates across Allentown.

"When I looked at testing rates by zip code, there were some zip codes in Allentown that had much higher testing rates for residential radon than other zip codes," she says. "My questions were: Why? What is it about some of these areas where people aren't testing?"

Muhlenberg students helped Cronin survey 550 Allentown residents to gauge how radon awareness, testing and mitigation varied across zip codes, education levels and various other demographic groups. Further research helped Cronin understand that the problem was one of communication and that Allentownians identifying as non-Hispanic were more than twice as likely to have ever heard of radon than those identifying as Hispanic. In 2018, Cronin and students conducted focus groups to better understand where Allentown residents find news and which outlets they trusted most.

Last fall, Cronin organized a radon symposium on Muhlenberg's campus with guests from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, the Allentown Health Bureau and the local hospital networks. The idea was to come up with ways to use research to enact change. Some of Cronin's students who attended came up with the idea to advertise about radon's risks within the Lehigh and Northampton Transportation Authority bus system. The state paid for ads, in both Spanish and English, to run on the outsides and insides of buses and within bus shelters. They read, "Radon causes lung cancer. Test your home. Save your life."

Cronin paused her radon work this spring in order to help with a student-driven program to train Lehigh Valley community members to administer Narcan, a drug that can reverse an opioid overdose. That project is on hold indefinitely—no one is sure when things like in-person training sessions can safely resume.

This time of uncertainty has Cronin thinking about the tabletop exercise on pandemic influenza that her Infectious Disease Epidemiology students would, in a typical semester, spend three or four class sessions working on. They imagine the disease making its way to campus and discuss how it should be handled.

"We end with, 'Should we have graduation or not?' We never get to, 'Well, will we open the following semester?'" she says. "I think I'm going to have to redo that whole course, because we don't work in what-ifs anymore."