A Mercer University professor is gaining attention for her straightforward way of explaining Georgia’s COVID-19 data to the public.
Dr. Amber Schmidtke, assistant professor of microbiology in the School of Medicine, began posting on Facebook about data related to the novel coronavirus in March.
“The situation was evolving really fast, and there was a lot of fear,” she said. “I’ve always kind of had the opinion that people are afraid of what they don’t understand, and so if I’m able to help people understand, then maybe some of the anxiety can be diminished.”
In the early days when data was scarce, Dr. Schmidtke said she aimed to provide context as to how the pandemic was unfolding. Now that the data is more refined, her updates have turned more toward research, latest findings and how Georgia compares to national trends.
She pulls data from the Georgia Department of Public Health and looks at trends from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. She also looks at daily lists of research articles curated by Mercer’s Skelton Medical Library.
Her posts, which go up every day except Saturday, generally include information about the number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths, including charts and maps.
“The goal is to really improve people’s comfort with science and show why data-driven decision-making is so important,” she said.
Since starting her Facebook page, Amber Schmidtke, PhD, Dr. Schmidtke has gained nearly 7,000 followers.
Her followers frequently share her posts with their friends, with some posts amassing hundreds of reactions, comments and shares.
Part of her popularity likely is due to her straightforward explanations, thoughtful responses to commenters and willingness to meet people where they’re at in terms of understanding the science.
Commenters often express gratitude for her posts.
“Thank you,” one commenter recently wrote. “The information you provide reinforces my determination, as a 73-year-old, to resist the risks of reopening and continue the behavior that has kept me well so far.”
And another: “Your analysis is incredibly helpful. Thank you for putting in the time and sharing this information with us.”
Dr. Schmidtke recently started a newsletter for people who don’t have Facebook or would rather get her daily COVID-19 updates by email. Sign up for the newsletter.
Joining COVID-19 data task force
Dr. Schmidtke, a self-described “data nerd,” joined the Mercer faculty in August 2019.
An infectious disease expert, she earned a Ph.D. in medical microbiology and immunology from Creighton University in Nebraska. She completed a postdoctoral research fellowship in the CDC’s Pertussis and Diphtheria Laboratory and later became a microbiologist for the Atlanta-based health protection agency.
“I have some great hands-on experience working in public health and understanding how the data are constructed and how to evaluate them,” she said.
In May, the Department of Public Health asked Dr. Schmidtke to join a state task force examining how COVID-19 data is presented to the public.
The task force is looking at how the department can make the data more understandable and help local decision-makers better approach the data, so they can make informed decisions, she said.
She works most closely with the Georgia Geospatial Information Office, which maps data, and has helped the health department refine how the information is presented on its website.
In addition, she’s pitched the idea of creating a data dashboard to help local officials decide how to reopen schools in the fall.
“The decisions are all going to be made locally,” said Dr. Schmidtke, a parent of two school-aged children. “But not everybody has access to the same data.
“Through this dashboard, we’ve sort of leveled the playing field so that everybody, even if they’re in a rural district, has access to the same tools.”
At the end of the day, Dr. Schmidtke hopes her work empowers people to be savvy data consumers.
“Let me teach you how to look at the data so that you can make your own decision,” she said.