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WVU researchers awarded Civilian Service Commendation Medal

Julia Fraustino and Daniel Totzkay are pinned with Civilian Service Commendation Medals
Maj. Josh Poling presents the Civilian Service Commendation Medal to Julia Fraustino (middle) and Daniel Totzkay (left).

Since September 2020, Julia Fraustino and Daniel Totzkay have been leading a team of researchers from the West Virginia University Public Interest Communication (PIC) Research Lab to provide data-driven messaging to support the state’s COVID-19 vaccination initiatives. As a result of these efforts, the duo has been honored with the U.S. Army's Civilian Service Commendation Medal.

Maj. Josh Poling of the West Virginia National Guard presented Fraustino, assistant professor in the WVU Reed College of Media and PIC Lab director, and Totzkay, assistant professor in the WVU Eberly College of Arts and Sciences Department of Communication Studies and PIC Lab faculty research associate, with the medal and a certificate in recognition of “outstanding support during the COVID-19 pandemic response” and a “commitment to excellence and service [that] was instrumental for mission readiness and accomplishment.”

“This is an incredible honor. As the pandemic took hold, I think many of us looked for how we could do our part to reduce its impact. As a risk and crisis communication scientist, I could bring social and behavioral science expertise and the vast knowledge of our lab researchers to help. It’s been the greatest privilege of my career to directly contribute to public health and the effort to save lives. I certainly never expected recognition for it.” Julia Fraustino

In November 2020, the PIC Research Lab, a cross-disciplinary unit founded by Fraustino with WVU Reed College of Media faculty members and housed in the College's Media Innovation Center, was awarded a contract with the West Virginia Center for Rural Health Development as part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and WV Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR) efforts to respond to the pandemic. Through that work, they performed social science analysis and evaluation to guide a statewide COVID-19 communication program. Since then, they have received additional funding to continue work with such partners as the Center for Rural Health Development (the lead agency of the WV Immunization Network), the WV Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Prevention Research Center in the WVU School of Public Health, as well as DHHR.

Fraustino and Totzkay’s most recent work has focused on parents and caregivers as well as local community outreach. They continue to work with the WV Joint Interagency Task Force on COVID-19 and participate in national efforts through meetings with entities such as the Rockefeller STAT Action Network, led by Atul Gawande, the CDC and the White House.

“Throughout the vaccine rollout, we have collected information on what West Virginians think and how they are making decisions around COVID-19 vaccination,” Totzkay said. “That has helped us develop and implement recommendations for all types of communicators to present information on COVID-19 vaccination in an accurate way that answers people’s questions and resonates with their goals, ideally in a way that would encourage their choosing to be vaccinated.”

The team has conducted an array of analysis efforts ranging from multiple statewide surveys to interviews and focus groups, so they could understand West Virginian’s information needs and help develop messaging to address those needs.

“Your efforts to facilitate transparent messaging for the state’s Joint Information Center and pandemic leadership team ensured that clear, concise and scientifically sound information was relayed to the people of West Virginia in an accurate and timely manner,” said Maj. Poling during the medal pinning in October 2021.

As the statement of their award from the U.S. Department of the Army noted, Fraustino and Totzkay’s “exceptional performance is an example to be emulated.” Fraustino and Totzkay’s work through the WVU PIC Lab has also been recognized as a national best practice by the CDC.