PROTECT responds to the COVID-19 Pandemic in Puerto Rico

In the last few years, Puerto Rico has faced numerous catastrophic events, including the Zika virus outbreak in 2016, Hurricanes Maria and Irma in September 2017, ongoing droughts, and a series of ongoing, destructive earthquakes in 2020. Now, and like much of the US, the island is dealing with the COVID 19 epidemic. 

The PROTECT Center continues to serve as a key resource to support and guide the community. Even before the majority of the US recognized the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic, PROTECT’s Human Subjects and Community Engagement Cores shared an email with the entire research team in Puerto Rico with information about the WHO Open Course Training for Health Professionals on COVID-19. In early March, the team completed COVID-19 Preparedness Training, preparing their offices and clinics with disinfection supplies as well as signs with information on using face masks and hand washing. Most importantly, the research staff started coordinating and communicating with study participants to plan and started exploring mechanisms for virtual interviews and data collections.

Following lockdown in Puerto Rico on March 16th, PROTECT instituted daily virtual meetings with coordinators and field operational staff.  In early April, the HSSC deployed online data collection and designed a series of trainings conducted via video call for research staff involved in data collection and entry, with frequent follow-up meetings to ensure that data collected is clean and accurate despite the new challenges posed by a remote work environment. An electronic consent process was also developed so that PROTECT can continue recruitment during the COVID-19 pandemic in addition to newly formed COVID-19 protocols which will allow the team to resume sampling soon.

The Community Engagement Core (CEC) conducted continuous participant outreach, providing reliable information on COVID-19, collecting their concerns and answering questions. The CEC developed a series of materials to educate participants and the community on COVID-19 and specific recommendations for pregnant women and parents of young children. A newly developed participant-centered “PROTECT Puerto Rico” Facebook page was developed to communicate with participants and the wider Puerto Rican community, providing critical public health information and resources to thousands of viewers, and honoring the front-line essential workers within our center. On this forum, PROTECT researchers and staff have created infographics and outreach materials while simultaneously participating in numerous media interviews, webinars, and live streams to get this information out to the public. Some of these notable outreach efforts include a Facebook live stream with the PROTECT Coordinator Héctor Torres Zayas and Puerto Rico Public Health Trust discussing the impacts of the virus relating to pregnant women on May 14th, another live stream with Hector on World Water Day, a presentation from Lyanne Melendez on risk communication during COVID-19 on Instagram live, as well as the many webinars and outreach efforts that ECHO pediatrician Gredia Huerta-Montañez has participated in. The team has developed an Activity Book for children on COVID-19 developed in partnership with the Puerto Rico Public Health Trust which is available for free via pdf download in English and Spanish.

This outreach material provided information on how to communicate with parents and children about Covid-19.

The PROTECT Team continues to work hard through the COVID-19 Pandemic finding creative solutions to maintain workflows despite the continuous challenges faced from compounding catastrophic events on the island of Puerto Rico. Despite these challenges, the PROTECT Center continues to provide support to the community while also transforming our research activities to adapt time and time again.  

These materials were created for our team but were also shared and translated for professional medical associations.