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Mares ’22: SOAR

Cesar Mares ’22–This summer I had the incredible opportunity to intern with SOAR (Shaping Our Appalachian Region) and CDC epidemiologist Dr. Margaret Riggs, PhD, MPH, MS. SOAR is a non-profit organization based with the aim of addressing challenges and identifying opportunities for the development of Eastern Kentucky. It strives to improve education, economic outcomes and health in the Appalachian region. Dr. Riggs serves as a CDC liaison for SOAR and also performs a wide variety of roles for local health departments. She served as our primary supervisor and project lead during our time with SOAR. With appropriate adherence to CDC guidelines, the first week of our internship took place in Pikeville, KY. Keith Klein ’21, Kaleb Wood ’21, and I would spend this week getting to know the region and meeting with local health department leaders in the Kentucky River District and Pike County areas. Although initial plans were to perform public health work relating to diabetes, it quickly became apparent that there was a different need. Through discussions with leaders at the forefront of the COVID-19 response, we determined that evaluating how local health department services were affected by COVID-19 would aid these departments in future work. The project would be composed oftwo sections with one focusing on qualitative data through interviews and one focusing on social media analytics. After week one in Pikeville, the rest of the internship became a virtual endeavor. I led the social media analytics portion of this project and my role was to create a SWOC (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, challenges) analysis of public health communications, specifically through the platform of Facebook, of local health departments. While a bit different from other work I have engaged in, I enjoyed it because of the research characteristic to it. Health department leaders stressed how social media became a powerful tool of COVID-19 education and health promotion. My analysis of these pages showed this to be true, with significant increases in total reach and engagement all across the counties of interest. In addition to the evaluation of data, I also performed interviews with health departments to gauge the usage of other forms of communication. I am appreciative of the number of skills and knowledge I have gained from my Wabash education as I never felt at a complete loss when presented with work I have never done before. The work that I performed with SOAR this summer exposed me to another facet of health. Public health practice is essential to healthy communities and an understanding of what goes into this practice makes one more appreciative of those at the frontlines of the COVID-19 response. I would like to thank the Wabash College Global Health Initiative, SOAR, and Dr. Margaret Riggs, PhD, MPH, MS for making this opportunity possible!