UW Researchers Provide Data to WI Public Health Leaders to Inform Decisions and Minimize Severe COVID-19 Cases

With the COVID-19 pandemic, UW-Madison researchers within the School of Medicine and Public Health are quickly adapting to support Wisconsin health officials. Researchers at the Health Innovation Program (HIP), who have been working to improve health care using electronic health record data voluntarily provided by over 20 Wisconsin health systems through the Wisconsin Collaborative for Healthcare Quality (WCHQ), have mobilized to determine how they could rapidly use these data to help those on the front line of the battle against COVID-19 to support the direction of efforts towards the places in Wisconsin that need it most.

The question for Maureen Smith, MD, PhD, MPH, Director of HIP, was, “How can these statewide data support decision making for Wisconsin health officials?” This question was the impetus for developing reports for health officials that highlight which ZIP Codes in Wisconsin are at higher risk for having many severe COVID-19 cases that might require hospitalization or ventilation.

Jessica Bonham-Werling, Director of Neighborhood Health Partnership Program (NHP) organized the team quickly to design and develop reports to identify ZIP Codes in each county that have a high number and/or prevalence of individuals with known COVID-19 risk factors for severe illness identified by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

“I wanted to create a tool that could help inform the decisions and planning for COVID-19 that are taking place in communities across Wisconsin to support their readiness preparations,” according to Bonham-Werling. “Local decision makers in government and health systems are under unbelievable pressure and data is of critical importance to them to help them anticipate where resources will be needed most over the weeks and potentially months ahead.”

These are extraordinary times for public health officials and health systems as COVID-19 sweeps the nation, putting every community at risk for infection, depleting resources and stretching communities to capacity. A critical need for public health is for high-quality data to support decision making.

“WCHQ data is a valuable resource of information to manage population health,” according to Matt Gigot, WCHQ Director of Performance Measurement and Analysis. “Now that same data can be used as a powerful tool in helping to predict where resources will be needed in our communities to fight COVID-19.”

The reports include an estimate for the number of individuals with each of the CDC risk factors for severe complications from COVID-19 that could be reliably identified in the WCHQ data. This includes the following:

  • Ages 65-85
  • Tobacco use
  • Severe obesity (Had a body mass index (BMI) greater than 40 during their most recent screening)
  • Immunocompromised conditions including lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, HIV/AIDS, malignant neoplasm, or multiple sclerosis
  • Diabetes
  • Serious heart conditions
  • Kidney disease
  • Lung diseases including asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Liver disease

The reports are an additional source of data as decision makers assess communities and plan their COVID-19 response. These data can aid in making a variety of decisions including:

  • Directing resources such as test kits, personal protective equipment and vaccines (when available);
  • Establishing or expanding community services such as grocery delivery;
  • Targeting communications; and,
  • Developing policy.

These reports are being provided by the NHP a part of the UW Institute for Clinical and Translational Research. Funded by the Wisconsin Partnership Program, the NHP Program is currently in development with plans to provide timely and actionable electronic health record data at the neighborhood-level data to inspire and sustain community health improvement efforts. The program is expected to fully launch by the Fall of 2021.

The Wisconsin Public Health Research Network (WPHRN) is helping to get these reports to public health officials across the state, making use of their network of over 270 members from state, local, and tribal health departments, academic institutions, and professional organizations across Wisconsin.

“Linking public health professionals and researchers is what we strive to do through WPHRN.  Providing information to our members about this rich new resource developed by researchers and tailored to answering questions public health professionals have, is one way we are trying to support the public health community during this pandemic and beyond,” states Susan Zahner, DRPH, RN, FAAN, WPHRN Co-Chair and Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs.

Reports are currently available to local health officials and decision makers. Plans are being made to release some of the data publicly in the near future.

For more information contact:

Jessica Bonham-Werling
(608) 263-2667