When COVID-19 caused college campuses across the country to close and students to go home, many students faced challenging circumstances such as housing insecurity, declining mental health, and financial instability. For LGBTQIA+ students, familial rejection of their identities and or loss of community support due to quarantine has made them particularly vulnerable to the challenges COVID-19 has exacerbated within marginalized communities.

In August, a team of students (Ananya Gandhi, Jeannie Ren, Jeffrey Xiong, Priya Chainani, and Ronit Dhuhu) set out to address these issues the LGBTQIA+ faced. Through the Rice-Columbia Hackathon organized by another Columbia student, they created a policy proposal with three main components: a telehealth service campaign, LGBTQIA+ data project, and a Youth Advocacy Initiative. After being selected as the winner of the hackathon and presenting their policy plans to New York Presbyterian (NYP) and the Healthcare Association of New York State (HANYS), they were invited to proceed with the Youth Advocacy Initiative component of their policy. This past weekend, I had a short conversation with them to learn more about their policy and what they learned in creating it.


What inspired your team to pick this topic/focus on this issue? 

When we entered the competition, there were already pre-assigned teams and a range of 4 topics we could choose from: food insecurity, telemedicine, LGBTQIA+ Health, and racial inequalities. Each of us felt that the LGBTQIA+ healthcare track encompassed an aspect of each of the other tracks and its focus on a specific group of individuals had the most potential for change. We ended up getting inspired from each of the different tracks so at the end our policy touched on each of the other tracks as well.


What was something that you learned while researching for your policy that stood out most to you or surprised you the most and why? 

I was surprised by how little data there existed on not just how COVID-19 impacts LGBTQIA+ people but how little LGBTQIA+ health data there is in general. The complexity of proposal implementation and feasibility was also a major concern, which meant we had to do a lot more research getting down specific metrics to be effective.


How has COVID specifically impacted the health of the LGBTQIA+ community?

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the LGBTQIA+ community was already underinsured and lacked trust in the healthcare system. These factors, combined with high rates of LGBTQIA+ individuals working for essential businesses, have contributed to the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on the LGBTQIA+ community. 


Please give me a brief rundown of what your policy was and the issues you were hoping to address with it.

We had several different policies within our proposal. The three chief components included a telehealth service campaign, creating the LGBTQIA+ data project and also the Youth Advocacy Initiative. After we met with a representative for NYP, we decided that we would move forward with the Youth Advocacy Initiative since our other policies were in the process of implementation through a previous NYP development. The aim of the Youth Advocacy Initiative is to create young leaders, equipped with knowledge about LGBTQIA+ healthcare disparities and resources, who could then serve as peers for other youths. 


Is there any significance in the age group you focused on and in the focus of building peer-to-peer connections?

Because the Uptown Hub, which we are now working with, is specifically for at-risk youth, we modeled our initiative based on the CDC Peer Public Opinion Leader community-level prevention intervention program for HIV/AIDS, but made appropriate adjustments based on the unique circumstances surrounding the NYC LGBTQIA+ community.


How did the meeting with NYP and HANYS go?

Meeting with NYP and HANYS went very well! We are still in the process of hearing back from HANYS after their own internal meeting, but we are now working with Uptown Hub to implement our youth advocacy program. We received a lot of amazing support and advice from Dr. Rebecca Sale and Dr. David Rosenthal from the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health.