The COVID-19 Pandemic: Our Year in Review

By Laura Fiorilli-Crews

It was one year ago today that the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. The announcement from Director-General Tedros Adhanom carried a clear sense that no aspect of life as we know it would remain unaffected.

“This is not just a public health crisis; it is a crisis that will touch every sector—so every sector and every individual must be involved in the fight,” Adhanom said.

At RTI International, we had been monitoring the situation since the first reports that a “novel coronavirus” had been infecting residents of Wuhan, China, in late December 2019. With a deep concern for global public health, and a workforce of more than 5,000 to look out for, we knew this was no ordinary outbreak.

The same week as the WHO announcement, we sent the majority of our worldwide staff members home for an unknown period of remote working. While our headquarters in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, and our offices around the world emptied, our work never stopped.

As an institute committed to improving the human condition, we are ideally suited to not only be involved in the fight against COVID-19, but to lead it. Our experts in epidemiology, public health, international development, engineering, economics, survey research, data analysis, communication, and many other fields met the moment and will continue to contribute to the solutions the world needs as it emerges from the crisis.

The response to the COVID-19 pandemic is the story of our year. It is the fight of our lives. As we reflect on a year of battling COVID-19, the work goes on, and we will never be the same.

The following are some of RTI’s key achievements from a year unlike any other.

March 2020

Now working from home, away from their usual desks and teams, RTI’s survey professionals quickly assessed the new reality. How would they keep collecting data from thousands of sources despite the upheaval? For the people involved in the EIA Gas Price Survey, advanced preparation for disasters and disruptions ensured that they could maintain their intense weekly schedule. The teams working on our postsecondary education surveys juggled the sudden office closure, shifting federal deadlines, and general disruption among the students and educational institutions they support.

April 2020

April was a foreboding month in the United States. The virus was just beginning to take hold, and the country experienced its first COVID-19 surge. But the path toward positive change was emerging on the horizon.

Mid-month, the federal pandemic response gained the expertise of one of RTI’s leading scientists. Dr. Doris Rouse, known for her decades-long pursuit of a new treatment for extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis, was chosen to serve alongside the nation’s top experts on a National Institutes of Health (NIH) panel addressing the current crisis and preparing for future pandemics.

The pandemic also took hold in low- and middle-income countries around the world. RTI’s international development team sprang into action to help countries and communities respond to the crisis and build resilience. One example is the USAID ReachHealth project in the Philippines, which shifted its activities to operationalize nationwide COVID-19 policies, help facilities access COVID-19 financing, empower health workers on infection prevention and control, improve contact tracing, and support risk communication and community engagement. 

Additionally, many countries around the world made the difficult decision to close schools and shift to distance learning. The USAID-funded All Children Reading–Cambodia project helped students practice reading and writing skills every day at home using online tools that parents are familiar with, like Facebook and YouTube. 

Amid the fear and uncertainty of spring 2020, COVID-19 was not the only thing going viral. Our communication science specialists monitored discussions of the pandemic on social media, including efforts by social media platforms to direct users away from misinformation and toward credible sources.

May 2020

The lengthening lockdown across much of the United States led to new questions. Two RTI researchers realized that a preventive health modeling tool they created could offer insights into the ripple effects of COVID-19 on society. Specifically, the web-based PRISM tool showed that if the pandemic interrupted preventive care for people with chronic conditions, deaths from these conditions would increase over time.

COVID-19 is a health issue, but the response needs to be multi-sectoral. In Senegal, the RTI-implemented USAID/Governance for Local Development (GoLD) Activity brought together 17 multi-sectoral projects to share ideas and resources so that projects could deliver results despite the operational challenges posed by the pandemic.

Another way we helped in the global response was increasing energy access for healthcare in sub-Saharan Africa. The USAID-funded Power Africa Off-Grid Project is providing grants to electrify healthcare facilities and supporting off-grid energy companies to adjust their business practices to operate under new guidelines and principles in light of the pandemic.

June 2020

Just as COVID-19 cases appeared to be stabilizing, the United States faced another national crisis: racial injustice. A wave of protests in response to several high-profile deaths of Black individuals at the hands of law enforcement called attention to systemic racial disparities.

Racial inequity was already a concern for our experts studying social determinants of health. Our understanding of how COVID-19 affects Black Americans differently than whites is part of a broader picture of how health disparities will need to be addressed beyond the pandemic.

The pandemic’s economic toll continued to spread amid the uncertainty of summer, as various states considered whether to reopen businesses. To provide essential information for COVID-19 response and relief at the national, state, and local levels, we launched an interactive map that measures economic vulnerability by location and occupation.

Also in June, our subsidiary, RTI India, formed a COVID-19 research partnership with the India Alliance, providing another example of our contributions to building pandemic resilience through robust scientific research, thought leadership, and interdisciplinary collaboration.

July 2020

Our research focus on telehealth proved prescient as phone- and video-based medical appointments emerged as a safe, mainstream option for health care. In a report to the U.S. Congress, a group of RTI researchers highlighted the positives of telehealth, especially for younger patients who need behavioral health and substance abuse treatment. Through blog posts and webinars, our experts offered advice for practitioners and informed opinions on updated guidelines for covering the costs of telehealth services. Through a study of telehealth for addiction treatment, we combined our years of research on the opioid epidemic with our emerging emphasis on COVID-19.

Food assistance provided a lifeline during the early months of the pandemic, especially for the millions of children who depend on school meals. Our researchers in the areas of food insecurity and nutrition policy monitored the sudden shift to Pandemic-Electronic Benefit Transfer, or Pandemic-EBT—the new, highly flexible food assistance program that Congress launched to put food in the hands of hungry families.

August 2020

A late-summer surge in COVID-19 cases, surpassing the levels seen in spring, coincided with the announcement of RTI’s involvement in large-scale efforts to combat the pandemic and other public health threats. We were chosen by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the NIH, to play a vital coordinating role in the newly established Centers for Research in Emerging Infectious Diseases network. In partnership with the Duke Human Vaccine Institute, RTI serves as the network’s operational hub, accelerating research targeting new outbreaks.

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, another part of the NIH, also selected RTI to serve as the Administrative Coordinating Center for the Collaborating Network of Networks for Evaluating COVID-19 and Therapeutic Strategies, or CONNECTS. This initiative focuses on clinical trials to identify therapies that will slow or halt the progression of COVID-19.

September 2020

Our longstanding expertise in health information systems led to a new role in a global project. USAID selected RTI as a partner for the Country Health Information Systems and Data Use (CHISU) Program, led by JSI Research & Training Institute. The project works alongside governments in low- and middle- income countries to strengthen health systems and data for decision-making, which is critical to building resilience against pandemics.

While preparing for better responses to the overall crisis, we also took steps to improve some of the short-term steps people were taking to manage the pandemic’s impact on everyday life. A study of COVID-19 screening measures such as temperature checks and health questions found that they could potentially miss anywhere from 20% to 100% of people infected with COVID-19. The results underscored the need for masks and physical distancing.

Masks themselves, in short supply earlier in the pandemic, got a boost from our Innovation Advisors and experts in filtration testing. These two RTI teams, one focused on technology commercialization and one on air quality and materials science, each found ways to work with existing and new clients to make personal protective equipment more available and effective.