Researchers at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health are providing local public health officials across Wisconsin with zip code-level data on the susceptibility of residents to severe complications from COVID-19.

The data will help public health officials and health systems prepare for hospitalizations, distribute protective equipment, or target communications to at-risk populations. The Health Innovation Program, a health systems research program within the School of Medicine and Public Health, has prepared the susceptibility reports based on anonymized health data provided by the Wisconsin Collaborative for Healthcare Quality, a network representing 65 percent of Wisconsin’s primary care physicians.

The reports estimate the number of individuals in a zip code that could develop severe complications from COVID-19, based on risk factors identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These risk factors include being over the age of 65 or having underlying conditions such as diabetes, lung disease, severe obesity or conditions that compromise the immune system.

While every community is at risk for COVID-19 infection, some may have people at a higher risk for severe complications should they contract the illness. These reports can help identify neighborhoods that may need additional resources and services to keep people healthy or care for them if they become sick.

“I wanted to create a tool that could help inform the decisions and planning for COVID-19 that are taking place in communities across Wisconsin to support their readiness preparations,” says Jessica Bonham-Werling, director of the Neighborhood Health Partnerships program, which prepared the reports. “Local decision makers in government and health systems are under unbelievable pressure and data is of critical importance to them to help them anticipate where resources will be needed most over the weeks and potentially months ahead.”

A map of COVID-19 risk factors
Areas with the highest percentages of adults with two or more risk factors for severe COVID-19 complications are shown in the darkest blue. Image courtesy of the Health Innovation Program

The reports are an additional source of data as decision makers assess communities and plan their COVID-19 response. These data can aid in deciding where to direct resources such as test kits and personal protective equipment, in establishing or expanding community services such as grocery delivery, and in targeting communications and developing policy.

The Neighborhood Health Partnerships has made the reports widely available across the state through their collaborators. The Wisconsin Collaborative for Healthcare Quality is sharing the data with participating healthcare systems. And the Wisconsin Public Health Research Network is sharing these reports with more than 270 members from state, local and tribal health departments, academic institutions, and professional organizations across Wisconsin.

“Linking public health professionals and researchers is what we strive to do through WPHRN. Providing information to our members about this rich new resource developed by researchers and tailored to answering questions public health professionals have is one way we are trying to support the public health community during this pandemic and beyond,” says Susan Zahner, Wisconsin Public Health Research Network co-chair and associate dean for faculty affairs in the School of Nursing.

Portions of the susceptibility data are now available to the public on the project’s website. The site displays color-coded maps of the percentage of residents in a zip code with two or more risk factors for severe complications from COVID-19. Each county can be viewed separately. The reports provided to health officials provide more in-depth information on risk factors.

Some counties, especially in northwestern Wisconsin, didn’t have enough data to produce reports. But Bonham-Werling hopes this project, Neighborhood Health Partnerships’ first, encourages more healthcare systems to join the data-sharing collaborative, which could provide the information necessary to cover the entire state for future projects.

The Neighborhood Health Partnerships, part of the Institute for Clinical and Translational Research and funded by the Wisconsin Partnership Program, was planning to launch in the fall of 2021 by providing neighborhood-level health data for researchers and public health officials across Wisconsin. But in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic, it greatly accelerated its work to quickly provide state health officials with timely data on risk factors for severe complications from COVID-19.

“The lightbulb went on, and we thought we could do some work here that would be valued by public health officials in the field to identify where pockets of vulnerable populations might be,” says Bonham-Werling.

“Now they can take this information and better plan their response within their communities,” she says.

By Haley Salazar and Eric Hamilton, University Communications