Early Career Spotlight: Rutgers University Environmental Health Researcher Showcases the Experiences of Young People in a COVID-19 Pandemic Hotspot

Skye Kelty, PhD

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to dominate our way of life, young people across America have risen to the challenges of a life lived largely indoors and online. Despite communications technologies keeping us more globally connected than ever before, young people have found themselves increasingly physically isolated. The “Stay-At-Home” lockdowns across the United States are the most severe since World War II, leading to unprecedented sights like empty malls, quiet streets in big cities, and empty athletics stadiums.

These lockdowns have significant implications for environmental health research. Many young people (11-30 years old) are not in school and instead face major health challenges in their broader communities, yet most common focus of youth environmental health research focuses only on school settings. Thirty percent of young people were unemployed and 60% of their households lost income during the pandemic. Environmental justice communities

 – those with disproportionate pollution burdens and populations with high susceptibility to the health impacts of pollution – fared even worse. As the pandemic behaviors of most young people shifted them into their homes and away from the outdoors, pollution burdens and environmental concerns have shifted. Community pollution burden often motivates youth to engage in environmental health activism, but a knowledge gap has surfaced about how the transition from outdoor to indoor environmental considerations will impact the health and priorities of young people.

It is in this context that, shortly before COVID-19 first spiked, I joined the team at the Rutgers University Center for Environmental Exposures and Disease (CEED) in New Jersey as a postdoctoral fellow. CEED was established through National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences funding with a goal of understanding, detecting, preventing and solving environmental health problems through collaborative research. My community-partnered research mission is to bring more young voices into the pandemic research process, building on my original plan to test the toxicity of vaping products that are popular with young people. As the news of the pandemic spread, I was disappointed with the public health websites for young adults that only covered student experiences and mental health problems linked to isolation. I instead thought of my siblings, friends, and peers who took on many responsibilities to protect their families, serve their communities, and do their jobs during the global shutdown. The young people that I know are navigating virtual learning/teaching, planning community cleanups with their friends, organizing protests against police brutality and racism, lobbying for masks to be provided at the grocery stores and bars where they work, and working overtime in healthcare professions to keep the doors open and patients safe. The youth are far from lazy and irresponsible as they sometimes appear on the news.

When CEED noted a lack of representation of young voices in their pandemic research discussions, we created a session that was included in the Center’s annual summit 

COVID-19, Environmental and Occupational Health and Justice on September 30, 2020. A set of young presenters from New Jersey community organizations lept at the chance to tell their stories beyond the classroom. The young presenters included Liberty Science Center Partners in Science Interns, 4-H ambassadors, the co-founder of the Newark Water Coalition, the president of a Surfrider Foundation Student Club, the Green Team Youth Leader of Groundwork Elizabeth, and the Program Manager of W.E.B. DuBois Scholars Institute. Speakers shared their pandemic experiences and ideas for investments that can help young people during the recovery from the pandemic in the “Next Normal.” Their actions during the pandemic inspired the audience of 60, which included many health researchers and leaders of New Jersey community organizations.  The presenters highlighted key pandemic concerns, including calls for expanding access to mental health care services, a need for safe youth engagement activities, a commitment to only opening with proper safety guidelines in place, concerns about disposable equipment into the natural environment, and the concepts of justice in pandemic services and recovery plans. You can watch the session
here.
These moments and sacrifices reflect the experiences of the Greatest Generation living through the Great Depression and World War II. Both generations have experienced very important history at a young age. Inspired by the CEED session, we are now launching a project to document the diverse pandemic experiences of even more young people in New Jersey and in my home state of California. We hope to feature the experiences of young people during the lockdown and the early recovery period for these two states, both of which have high COVID-19 burdens. This project will be open for participation in Spring 2021 for young people to answer surveys and to submit their creative projects to document their own experiences. This information will be used to inform public health decisions related to the pandemic and the creation of the “Next Normal” after the pandemic. We hope this work will help ensure that the youth are central to our pandemic research and that we protect their vision for the future.  
 
Skye Kelty, PhD
Dr. Kelty is a postdoctoral Fellow at Rutgers University Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute. Dr. Kelty completed her PhD in Pharmacology and Toxicology at UC Davis in Dec 2019 with special emphasis in Environmental Justice. 

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You can change the image of things to come. But you can’t do it sitting on your hands … The science community should reach out to Congress and build bridges.
The Honorable John E. Porter