Data supported decision-making

Emily Toma ’19 at Wheaton in 2018.

Emily Toma ’19 contributes to Rhode Island COVID-19 study

As states implement their phased reopening plans, understanding how far COVID-19 has spread through a population has been and continues to be critical.

In Rhode Island, Emily Toma ’19 is helping to supply the data that public health officials need to formulate smart policy decisions. In her role as research assistant in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Miriam Hospital in Providence, R.I., she contributed to a study that tested a random sample of people to gain a better understanding of who has been impacted by COVID-19.

The June study by the Rhode Island Department of Health determined that 2.2 percent of the state’s population had antibodies to the virus.

“A random sample can provide a better idea of how many people have had the disease because it can capture those who never had symptoms,” said Toma, who graduated from Wheaton with an independent major in public health. It is not known yet whether people who had COVID-19 in the past can get reinfected.

In addition to her work entering and fixing inaccuracies and inconsistencies in data for studies on COVID-19 surveillance and testing, Toma also conducts research on HIV and sexually transmitted diseases. Her team recently submitted a paper to Sexually Transmitted Diseases, the official journal of the American Sexually Transmitted Diseases Association, on how the state’s COVID-19-related stay-at-home order impacted the use of Miriam Hospital’s Sexually Transmitted Infections clinic.

Toma’s interest in public health emerged as a student at Wheaton. She credited her advisor, Professor of Religion Jonathan Brumberg-Kraus, for encouraging her to pursue an independent major in the field. (Public health is now offered as a major at Wheaton.)

“Wheaton had some fantastic courses such as ‘Health and Medicine,’ ‘Health Psychology,’ ‘Statistics,’ ‘Quantitative Research Methods,’ ‘Medical Ethics,’ and many more,” Toma said. “I was even able to take the courses ‘Epidemiology’ and ‘Global Health Perspectives on Infectious Diseases’ while studying abroad in Wollongong, Australia, which complemented what I was learning at Wheaton. The end result was a fantastic four years studying what I was most passionate about.”

Toma said she enjoys working in Rhode Island because it has one centralized department of public health rather than several local ones, which is typical in most states.

“It is also very rewarding to be able to apply the skills I learned at Wheaton to COVID-19, one of the biggest public health crises the United States has faced in my lifetime,” she said.