Student volunteer creates data dashboard for COVID-19

May 6, 2021

Kelsey Sumner

Kelsey Sumner

Kelsey Sumner, who is graduating with the Class of 2021, worked with UNC Gillings alumna Kelsey Dickman, MPH ’19, and the public health nurses at Granville Vance Public Health to create a data dashboard to inform residents of Granville and Vance Counties about COVID-19 case numbers in the area.

“When the pandemic really took off last March, I felt like it was my responsibility as someone pursuing a career in epidemiology to do something to help,” said Sumner. “I worked with Granville Vance when I was in undergrad and reached out to see what the health department needed. I was very excited to help create the COVID-19 dashboard, because I think public-facing scientific communication is becoming more important, and I am very proud of how it turned out.”

Initially, the dashboard consisted of graphs showing weekly trends in infection and COVID-19 case numbers, and it was primarily for public officials. As the pandemic progressed, the need to share data more frequently and widely became clear, as did the need to do so in a manner that was more self-sustaining.

Dickman worked with the public health nurses to create a data-entry program that was easier to use, and Sumner figured out a streamlined process for cleaning the data and creating visualizations. The result was a dashboard that could be updated daily, giving the public up-to-date information about COVID-19 case numbers. Sumner shared her methods to ensure that the health department could maintain the dashboard after she left.

The director of Granville Vance Public Health, Lisa Macon Harrison, MPH, earned a Master of Public Health degree from the Gillings School’s Public Health Leadership Program in 2006 and is an adjunct assistant professor in the program.

“We endeavor to have a rural academic health department in order to elevate our practice, and Kelsey has certainly helped us elevate our ability to translate COVID-19 data to the public,” said Harrison. “It has been absolutely wonderful having her help with our data management and data dashboard on our website.”

Sumner’s commitment to solving real-world problems led to her master’s practicum, a 200-hour work experience that is a required element of the UNC Gillings MPH program. To learn more about how to apply her public health training, she worked with the Division of Public Health at the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services with Gillings School alumnus and adjunct assistant professor Aaron Fleischauer, PhD ’02, on a project focused on Rocky Mountain spotted fever. This experience convinced her that she wanted to use her training to conduct epidemiological work in the field.

In fact, she’ll start a job as an Epidemic Intelligence Service officer at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention after graduation, where she’ll spend two years serving on the front lines of public health, investigating and responding to outbreaks of influenza as well as COVID-19.

Sumner’s first connection with the Gillings School came during a summer program in tropical medicine. She worked in Costa Rica with coffee plantation workers on a study measuring the area’s intestinal parasite burden. The workers were referred to local health clinics for treatment, but Sumner was dissatisfied that the team hadn’t addressed the root cause of the infections. One of the classes she took while in Costa Rica was taught by the late Steve Meshnick, MD, PhD, a generous mentor and renowned researcher of tropical diseases who would end up being Sumner’s first advisor at UNC.

“His epidemiology course left me with a burning curiosity for why some communities had higher disease burden and how to prevent cases from happening in the first place,” she said. “That experience was the first time I saw the real importance of long-term population health measures and what pushed me to pursue a career in public health.”

Visit the Granville Vance COVID-19 Dashboard to see the result of Sumner’s work that is still in use.


Contact the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health communications team at sphcomm@unc.edu.

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