Class of 2021: Sociology Grads Investigate COVID and Social Factors

May 13, 2021 By Anne E. Bromley, Anne E. Bromley,

Since the first COVID-19 case was discovered in the United States in January 2020, there have been 32.8 million positive cases and three periods of significant rate increase, or waves, as of May 11.

Three University of Virginia sociology students devoted their distinguished major theses to investigating several critical issues that have emerged from the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S. They had to address statistics and situations changing on a daily basis, not to mention being isolated and unable to work in-person on parts of their projects.

Madeleine Peterson, Rain Sabin and Christine Siu, who graduate May 22, succeeded in doing sophisticated analyses for projects concerning COVID-19, the social determinants of health and their impact on racial and ethnic groups.

“Each of their projects sheds new light on the well-known racial and ethnic differences in morbidity and mortality from this pandemic,” Tom Guterbock, director of undergraduate programs in sociology, said.

Natalie Aviles, an assistant professor of sociology who specializes in medical sociology, directly supervised Peterson’s and Siu’s theses and was the second reader on Sabin’s.

Related Story

Final Exercises 2021. Learn more.

“I am really impressed by how all three of these students married classically sociological insights related to social inequalities, especially racial and ethnic disparities, with emerging data on the pandemic to develop truly outstanding interdisciplinary research projects,” she wrote in an email.

Guterbock pointed out that they started planning their thesis projects in September. “Month by month, everything kept changing in terms of the spread of the illness, knowledge about its causes and effects, the available data, and, of course, the unexpectedly prompt arrival of the vaccines,” he said.

“The three students have supported each other as they worked their way through some complex issues in data analysis and interpretation,” Guterbock said.

The students said it was a loss not being able to meet with advisers in person, although the faculty members made themselves easily accessible virtually; nor were they able to collaborate with each other regularly face-to-face. Two of the students couldn’t interview informants in person.

They agreed it was a challenge to conduct research on something happening in real time. It required them to stay updated on the numbers continually – numbers that are still changing daily as the pandemic continues to run its course.

Christine Siu: Population Density and Infection Rates, Plus Race and Politics

Christine Siu Headshot
Siu looked at whether population density predicts COVID infection rates, but the results were complicated. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

Siu, who double-majored in Spanish and sociology, wrote that she “was interested in understanding the relationship between population density and infection rates, as there is not much agreement among scientists concerning the impact of density on transmission. Additionally, this study focused on the impacts of racial composition and political leaning on COVID-19 infection rates, as many past studies have overlooked these variables or have only considered one and not the other.”

She conducted her analysis using data for city densities, COVID-19 illness rates per 100,000 population, percent of Black population, as well as the majority political party of each city’s state, according to the results of the 2020 presidential election.

“The results revealed that while there was a positive relationship between density and COVID-19 illness rates during the first wave, this relationship essentially reversed in the following waves, as less dense areas experienced the greatest rates of COVID-19 infection,” Siu wrote in a summary. “The results also showed that while metropolitan areas with a higher percent of Black population experienced greater rates of COVID-19 infection in the first wave, those with a lower percent of Black population experienced greater rates of COVID-19 infection in the third wave.

“Essentially, while racial disparities in infection rates were very clear at the beginning of the pandemic, cities with higher percentages of white population and cities located in red states experienced the highest rates of COVID-19 infection in the following waves.”

Madeleine Peterson: Access to Health Care in Prisons and COVID Rates

Madeleine Peterson headshot
Peterson argued that prisons provide inmates with fairly equal access to health care, even if it’s not the highest quality, mitigating racial disparities in death rates seen in the general population. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

“I wanted to see if there was a correlation between race and COVID cases and outcomes in the United States’ prison population,” said Peterson, who will move to New Orleans in August to pursue a master’s in physiology from Tulane University before applying to medical school.

Her summary: “In the general population, we can see that COVID-19 has affected racial groups differently, mostly due to social factors such as discrimination, access to health care, occupation, housing, and income and education gaps. These could all be contributors to COVID inequities, as stated by the CDC. In a correctional setting, however, all inmates must be provided health care under the U.S. Constitution.”

She found that in prison, there was no significant correlation between infection rate and percentage of non-white inmates and no significant correlation between death rate and the percentage of non-white inmates.

Rotunda Logo with the Text UVA

There was a slight positive trend between death rates and percentage of non-white inmates using the whole sample, but using a smaller subset, the small correlation disappeared. Risk factors for COVID still exist in prisons, but what the results tell us is that providing equal access to health care, even if the quality of health care is questionable, does mitigate racial disparities in COVID-19.

“I tried to keep up with the news to stay up-to-date on what was happening in prisons as I was writing my thesis, just to see if any of what I had already written had changed. Living through the pandemic and trying to do a study on it was interesting, in that I was always on my toes, especially when vaccines started to roll out.” 

Rain Sabin: Exposure and Vulnerability of Racial and Ethnic Populations

Rain Sabin Headshot
Using data from two federal surveys, Sabin assessed the exposure and vulnerability of white Americans and the three racial/ethnic minorities to COVID. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Sabin, a Charlottesville native, said she was lucky that her research was not disrupted by the move to remote learning. A transfer student to UVA from Piedmont Virginia Community College, she plans to work as a social science analyst after graduation for a couple of years before pursuing a master’s degree in public health.

Using data from two federal surveys, Sabin assessed the exposure and vulnerability of white Americans and the three racial/ethnic minorities with the most disproportionate share of incidence and mortality during the COVID-19 pandemic: African Americans, Hispanics, and American Indian and Alaskan Natives. She also interviewed nine people from organizations that directly addressed the exposures and vulnerabilities of different racial/ethnic groups during the COVID-19 crisis, she wrote in summarizing her project.

“Putting this all together, we can start to see that white Americans are both less vulnerable (in terms of risk factors) and less exposed (in terms of occupation) to COVID-19 infection than these other racial/ethnic groups,” she wrote in a summary.

She found that “Hispanic Americans are about equal to white Americans in most measures of vulnerability, but they are more exposed to the virus through their occupations (and crowded households, another form of exposure), and this likely accounts for some degree of their disparate mortality. African Americans are both more exposed (through their occupations) and more vulnerable (through comorbidities, also called risk factors or underlying conditions) to COVID-19 infection than white Americans.”

There is less information available, Sabin wrote, but she found that American Indian and Alaskan Natives are more exposed to infection than white Americans through their occupations. “We know from existing literature that the [Indigenous groups] have a higher burden of illness at a younger age than most other racial/ethnic groups.

“Knowing that most racial/ethnic minorities have higher rates of [risk factors] at younger ages than white Americans, we can start to see ‘color-blind’ racism in the effect of the age-focused vaccination policy that guided the first several months of vaccine distribution.

“When minorities die at equivalent rates to older white Americans,” she wrote, “they are not afforded the same degree of protection from the virus by age-based vaccine policy.”

Media Contact

Anne E. Bromley

University News Associate Office of University Communications