Hassenfeld Study Provides Opportunity to Examine Impact of COVID-19 on R.I. Families

A pregnant person.

The Hassenfeld Institute’s longitudinal study of the health of Rhode Island mothers and infants, known as the Hassenfeld Study, enrolls moms across the state either during early pregnancy or shortly after delivery and follows them and their children for three years. This provides the framework for research in many areas, including an analysis of the impact of COVID-19 on the communities we serve. 

When cases of COVID-19 surged in spring 2020, recruiting for the Hassenfeld Institute’s prospective birth cohort — which is typically done in person in providers’ offices and at Women & Infants Hospital — was temporarily halted. But the work didn’t stop for the Institute’s team of research assistants.

Adam Lewkowitz, M.D., MPHS, a Brown assistant professor and maternal-fetal medicine doctor with Women & Infants, approached the Institute about collaborating on a study of how the pandemic was affecting mothers and infants in Rhode Island. Dr. Lewkowitz partnered with Melissa Clark, Ph.D., who leads the School of Public Health’s Survey Research Center, to develop a survey asking a full complement of public health questions related to COVID-19. Lauren Schlichting, Ph.D., the Hassenfeld Institute’s senior research analyst, trained the research assistants on new software that made remote recruitment and data collection easier.

“It was more difficult to keep the moms on the phone if they had multiple kids at home or were dealing with remote learning or working from home. But the team worked tirelessly to get as many participants as we could,” said Natacha Varela, the Institute’s study coordinator.

By the end of 2020, 241 moms enrolled in the Hassenfeld Study had completed the survey.

“The infrastructure of the Hassenfeld Study lent itself perfectly to a public health survey about how moms were responding to the pandemic, not only physically, but also mentally,” Dr.  Lewkowitz said.

Participants in the Hassenfeld Study are a good representation of Rhode Island’s diversity in terms of race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status, since the majority of mothers in Rhode Island deliver at Women & Infants.

The team wanted to understand the emotional impact of COVID-19 on mothers, focusing on anxiety and depression, and also asked about life changes resulting from the pandemic, such as losing a job or not having enough money to buy essentials. 

“In terms of emotional impact, 70% of moms said they had higher stress levels, on average, compared to before the pandemic, and of those moms, 30% who reported they did not experience anxiety before COVID-19 screened positive for generalized anxiety disorder during the pandemic,” Dr. Lewkowitz said.

The preliminary data from the survey also showed that 19% of children enrolled in the Hassenfeld Study missed in-person doctor’s appointments because their parents were concerned about going into the provider’s office during the pandemic, and 14% of parents had delayed or were planning to delay immunizations for their children for the same reason. For parents with children in daycare, 84% said their child’s daycare provider closed due to the pandemic, and 69% reported they or a family member had to change their work schedule to care for their child themselves.

“The Hassenfeld Institute saw an emerging public health issue and recognized an opportunity to collect data to understand how it’s impacting the lives of children and families in Rhode Island,” Dr. Schlichting said. 

Learn more about our birth cohort and our studies.