Westat’s Sarah Ball Discusses Challenges of Conducting Research During Pandemics

Westat Infectious Disease Epidemiologist Sarah Ball discusses the challenges of conducting health research during a pandemic.
Westat Infectious Disease Epidemiologist Sarah Ball discusses the challenges of conducting health research during a pandemic.

Sarah Ball, Sc.D., is an infectious disease epidemiologist at Westat with over a decade of experience directing, designing, and implementing respiratory viral disease studies, including during the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic. She directs the VISION Project—Virtual Incidence and Severe Influenza Outcomes Network—for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This “virtual network” of integrated care and health systems will pull electronic medical records data related to flu vaccination, episodes of flu illness, and associated severe outcomes.

Westat is supporting CDC on this project by examining influenza incidence and vaccine effectiveness against severe, rare outcomes through site selection, development of a common protocol, and implementation of an innovative data management system, which has the potential to rapidly scale up as needed to conduct research in near real time, including in the event of an emerging epidemic such as COVID-19.

Q: With the rapid spread of COVID-19 globally, the need for real-time research is critical—research on the course of illness, prevention strategies, vaccine effectiveness should one become available, and the outcomes and burden of the disease. Drawing from what you’ve learned conducting multisite epidemiological studies, what are some of the challenges in conducting research during a public health emergency?

A: One of the greatest challenges in a pandemic is rapidly operationalizing studies and finding capable partners. I was part of a team involved in standing up multiple studies during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, which aimed to understand both influenza burden and vaccine effectiveness among high-risk populations. Identifying clinical partners and capable laboratories, ensuring timely human subjects’ review, training study staff on surveillance and study methods, and sharing and analyzing data in near real time are challenging in any research setting, but in an emergency, they are even more so. 

Q: What are some of the populations you studied and why? 

A: Health care personnel and pregnant women are 2 populations I’ve studied. These populations are particularly vulnerable in a pandemic, as well as during an annual flu season. With the pandemic H1N1 outbreak, pregnant women were disproportionally negatively affected, and because health care personnel are on the front lines caring for patients, they are often at considerable risk for virus exposure. 

Q: What are some of the innovative methods that Westat is deploying that could be helpful in pandemics?

A: Westat has been assisting our government clients with accessing electronic medical records for research across many domains of health. For example, the new platform we have developed for CDC’s VISION project will enable us to access larger sample sizes that can help to provide pooled estimates with statistical precision. This new platform has great potential for rapidly conducting near real-time research such as for the emerging COVID-19 epidemic.

Among the greatest challenges in a pandemic are rapidly operationalizing studies and finding capable partners.

- Sarah Ball, Associate Director, Public Health & Epidemiology

Want to work with us?
You’ll be in great company.

About Us Careers

Westat Employees.
Westat Employee.
AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety
Baltimore Metropolitan Council
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services
Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning
DC Public Schools
Georgia Department of Transportation
Internal Revenue Service
Leadership Montgomery
Maryland Cancer Registry
Michigan Department of Health and Human Services
National Science Foundation
NYC Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity
Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development
Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
Social Security Administration
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
Teach for America
Texas Education Agency
The Johns Hopkins University
The National Institutes of Health
The Verizon Foundation
U.S. Department of Agriculture
U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
U.S. Department of Justice
U.S. Department of Transportation
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
University of Maryland Baltimore Campus
University of Michigan
University System of Maryland
Explore Our Clients

Please wait...

Forbes 2023 America's Best Mid-Size Employers Powered by Statista Forbes 2022 The Best Employers for Women Powered by Statista

Westat is an Equal Opportunity Employer and does not discriminate on the basis of race, creed, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, veteran status, disability, marital status, sexual orientation, citizenship status, genetic information, gender identity or expression, or any other protected status under applicable law. Notices to Employees & Applicants.