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Desert Research Institute Joins The Fight Against Coronavirus


The Desert Research Institute, known for its work with the environment, is stepping up to help in the fight against the novel coronavirus.  

The Las Vegas and Reno-based research agency launched two new programs to explore Nevadans’ experience with COVID-19. 

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Researchers hope to use that data to help medical experts and decision-makers better understand the virus. 

Tamara Wall is the Deputy Director of the Western Regional Climate Center of the Desert Research Institute. 

She's also a sociologist and has been asked to work on a rapid response project that will collect narratives about the pandemic from thousands of people and then look for patterns.

“Unlike a survey, which just kind of gives you very opinion-based responses or black and white responses, this is really designed to put people’s experiences in context and then to do what we call pattern-seeking. So, looking for those larger patterns,” Wall said.

Wall did similar research on wildfires and extreme wildfire behavior. She found differences between how female and male firefighters viewed extreme wildfire behavior.

The project managers hope any detected patterns can help policy planners make decisions. 

The story project will be rolled out soon through social and traditional media along with individual and professional networks of the sociologists working on the project.

Wall said the project is going to be worldwide, which she believes will bring a variety of responses. 

“I think they’re all going to be very different and yet they’re all going to have some interesting similarities no matter where you are on planet Earth. I think everybody is kind of feeling the same things,” she said.

In addition to this new study, an existing long-term health study is pivoting to track coronavirus. 

Joe Grzmyski is the principal investigator with the Healthy Nevada Project and a professor at Desert Research Institute. 

The project signs up people, then collects data on behavior, socio-economics and genetics to see why some get sick and others don't.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has enabled us to utilize this infrastructure for understanding the broader implications of this novel coronavirus.”

Grzmyski said there is a lot of uncertainty about why some people with coronavirus get very sick and others recover quickly. This study could help explain that mystery.

“With a study like the Healthy Nevada Project, which has over 50,000 individuals consented into this health determinants platform, we can examine how individuals who’ve been sick and haven’t been sick behave in terms of their health outcomes as a way to help researchers understand what are the various comorbidities or aspects of health behavior, lifestyle, etc., that cause some people to get really, really sick and end up in the ICU, and other people to have essentially asymptomatic or no symptoms of coronavirus,” he said.

Since the Health Nevada Project collects genetic data, it could be important to see if and how genetics plays a role in coronavirus, especially in people who don't already have underlying health conditions that cause them to become sick from the virus.

While Grzmyski said the project could help, it is a long-term study, so any information will take a long time to analyze. 

Tamara Wall, Deputy Director of the Western Regional Climate Center, Desert Research Institute;  Joe Grzymski, principal investigator, Healthy Nevada Project and professor at Desert Research Institute 

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Mike has been a producer for State of Nevada since 2019. He produces — and occasionally hosts — segments covering entertainment, gaming & tourism, sports, health, Nevada’s marijuana industry, and other areas of Nevada life.