Population Health Metrics During the Early Stages of the COVID-19 Pandemic: Correlative Pilot Study

Marie A. Severson, David A. Cassada, Victor C. Huber, Daniel D. Snow, Lisa M. McFadden

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: COVID-19 has caused nearly 1 million deaths in the United States, not to mention job losses, business and school closures, stay-at-home orders, and mask mandates. Many people have suffered increased anxiety and depression since the pandemic began. Not only have mental health symptoms become more prevalent, but alcohol consumption has also increased during this time. Helplines offer important insight into both physical and mental wellness of a population by offering immediate, anonymous, cheap, and accessible resources for health and substance use disorders (SUD) that was unobstructed by many of the mandates of the pandemic. Further, the pandemic also launched the use of wastewater surveillance, which has the potential for tracking not only population infections but also consumption of substances such as alcohol. Objective: This study assessed the feasibility of using multiple public surveillance metrics, such as helpline calls, COVID-19 cases, and alcohol metabolites in wastewater, to better understand the need for interventions or public health programs in the time of a public health emergency. Methods: Ethanol metabolites were analyzed from wastewater collected twice weekly from September 29 to December 4, 2020, in a Midwestern state. Calls made to the helpline regarding housing, health care, and mental health/SUD were correlated with ethanol metabolites analyzed from wastewater samples, as well as the number of COVID-19 cases during the sampling period. Results: Correlations were observed between COVID-19 cases and helpline calls regarding housing and health care needs. No correlation was observed between the number of COVID-19 cases and mental health/SUD calls. COVID-19 cases on Tuesdays were correlated with the alcohol metabolite ethyl glucuronide (EtG). Finally, EtG levels were negatively associated with mental health/SUD helpline calls. Conclusions: Although helpline calls provided critical services for health care and housing-related concerns early in the pandemic, evidence suggests helpline calls for mental health/SUD-related concerns were unrelated to COVID-19 metrics. Instead, COVID metrics were associated with alcohol metabolites in wastewater. Although this research was formative, with continued and expanded monitoring of population metrics, such as helpline usage, COVID-19 metrics, and wastewater, strategies can be implemented to create precision programs to address the needs of the population.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere40215
JournalJMIR Formative Research
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 2022


  • COVID-19
  • ethyl glucuronide
  • helpline
  • stress
  • wastewater

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine (miscellaneous)
  • Health Informatics


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