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Michael Emch, a distinguished Professor of epidemiology in the Gillings School of Global Public Health and geography and a fellow at the Carolina Population Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has recently been using his expertise in epidemiology and geography to track the spread of COVID-19 — specifically in regards to where testing has occurred — in order to combine with other sets of data to determine disparities in testing, who got tested, how often and where and when those tests took place.

“I direct the spatial health research group using our expertise in disease, ecology and spatial data science,” said Emch. “We do collaborative research in public health, medicine, and geography — and so our group is involved with many studies, including several on COVID-19. … My field is called medical geography, or some people call it health geography. And in that field, we study human environment interaction and how it can lead to disease incidents.”

One of the focal points for Emch’s research is “testing deserts” — places where the rate of testing is exceptionally low.

“We identify testing deserts that will help us understand where disparities exist for who gets tested, such as urban and rural differences, socioeconomic disparities in testing, racial or ethnic disparities in testing,” said Emch. “… When I talk about human environment interaction, we look at the social and built environment — such as things like segregation or violence and social support, within a neighborhood such as churches and other institutions. But we also study the biophysical environment because it helps us understand who gets some diseases like malaria or cholera, which are linked to the environment. We look at environment and human interaction holistically.

These theories and methods are used to examine diverse topics such as the role of population-environment drivers in pathogen evolution, how social connectivity contributes to disease incidence, and using environmental indicators to predict disease outbreaks. Accorind to Emch, the interaction between fields of study and scientific disciplines involved in better understanding COVID-19 has led to some interesting — and effective — lectures and lesson plans.

“…In the midst [of class], we’ve had this new outbreak of an emerging infectious diseases,” said Emch. “… I actually changed the curriculum mid-semester and had students reading modeling reports, and we were studying the types of models that they were using that were in the news and things like that. So that was a very interesting semester.”

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