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Associate Clinical Professor Esther Chernak Offers “Food for Thought” on Disaster Communications for Families with Children with Special Health Care Needs

March 24, 2021

On March 15, 2021, members of the Drexel community ‘gathered together’ remotely for the traditional toast to the end of the academic term during the Libraries’ winter ScholarSip event.

This ScholarSip was special, as it not only marked the end of another term, but it also marked the first anniversary of the University’s decision to shift to remotely teach all classes.

“It is incredible to think that one year ago we shifted to remote classes due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Danuta A. Nitecki, Dean of Libraries, said during her opening remarks. “March 16, 2020 was supposed to be the day of our 2020 winter ScholarSip event, but we ultimately decided to postpone it until spring, at which point we also adapted the event to a virtual format. Although we are still not able to gather on campus for ScholarSip events as we have in the past, we have found new, virtual ways to connect with one another for this important Libraries series.” 

Given this unique anniversary, the theme of this year’s ScholarSip event series—Responding to COVID-19 through Research and Scientific Problem Solving—was all the more appropriate for the winter event.

This term, the Libraries was pleased to welcome guest speaker Dr. Esther Chernak, Associate Clinical Professor for Drexel’s Dornsife School of Public Health and the College of Medicine, and the Director of the Center for Public Health Readiness and Communication.

During her session, Professor Chernak spoke about her interdisciplinary project that studied the disaster communication needs of families who have children with special health care challenges.

“This study originated in many ways out of my experiences working for the Philadelphia Public Health Department, where I spent a lot of time responding to public health emergencies,” Professor Chernak said during her session. “Ultimately, I felt like we could do a better job of responding to outbreaks and communicating with the public, particularly for children with special health care needs.”

So, from April 2017 to June 2019, Professor Chernak and her research team collected data through focus groups, surveys, and interviews with families and care givers and medical providers to answer three major research questions:

  1. How do families with children with special health care needs prefer to receive information in emergencies and disasters?
  2. Do medical practice and social service organizations that service these communities have capacity for disaster communications?
  3. To what extent can social media be a useful channel to share information with at-risk communities during public health emergencies?

Their key findings show that families want clear, concise information targeted to their child’s health needs, and providers want materials they can give their families. They used that feedback to create check lists and simple documents for both families and health care providers to help them through a disaster or public health emergency. Currently, the tools are being reviewed by the CDC, and Professor Chernak hopes they will be cleared for distribution later this year.

Although the team completed most of their research more than six months before the first reported case of COVID-19, they did update the tools to incorporate feedback received since the pandemic began.

“There are also sections of these tools that address how to help children cope [with an emergency or disaster],” Professor Chernak explained. “These sections came out after COVID, where families have told us they are struggling during COVID, so we added these coping sections largely as a result of the pandemic.”

But their work certainly is not done. Next, Chernak explained, the research team intends to look at families’ post-COVID-19 communication preferences and develop mitigation strategies for misinformation around vaccines and the pandemic.  

Following her presentation, Professor Chernak—as well as several members of her research team who attended the ScholarSip session—answered questions from the audience and socialized with colleagues.

Although the virtual “happy hour” format certainly is not the same as clinking glasses in person, the conversations that followed the session were as lively as ever, as colleagues shared another toast to the end of the academic term and to coming together on campus again soon.

Join us next term for the final ScholarSip event of the 2020/2021 academic term, featuring Associate Professor of Engineering Christopher Sales. Professor Sales will discuss his work with SEPTA (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority) to enhance efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on public transportation, which includes research on risk assessment, mitigation and communication strategies that will help keep riders safe and healthy.

Missed the winter event? Watch the complete recording of the session on the Drexel Libraries’ YouTube channel.