HSC to lead state effort to raise awareness about COVID-19 in underserved communities

By Diane Smith

Dr. Jamboor Vishwanatha
Dr. Jamboor K. Vishwanatha

The University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth (HSC) will administer the Texas portion of a $12 million National Institutes of Health award for outreach and engagement efforts in ethnic and racial minority communities disproportionately affected by COVID-19. 

The award to RTI International, a nonprofit research institution, will support teams in 11 states established as part of the NIH Community Engagement Alliance (CEAL) Against COVID-19 Disparities, according to NIH. 

Several Texas counties, including Tarrant, are among high-priority regions that will receive special focus. The project connects communities with accurate public health information and informs communities about clinical research and vaccine trials. 

The Texas CEAL Consortium will be administered through HSC and led by Dr. Jamboor K. Vishwanatha, Regents Professor and Founding Director for the HSC Texas Center for Health Disparities. 

HSC is committed to leading the way in creating solutions to address health disparities that affect members of underrepresented and diverse communities,” HSC President Dr. Michael Williams said. “COVID-19’s disproportionate impact has shined a bright light on the need for more partnerships and resources to solve these disparities.” 

Other high-priority areas in Texas include Bexar, Dallas, Harris and Hidalgo counties, according to NIH.  

“The Texas CEAL Team has brought together academic partners and multiple community partners with whom trusted relations have been built over many years,” Dr. Vishwanatha said. “With this state-wide effort, we hope to provide science-based information to overcome the misinformation and mistrust in our communities regarding the clinical and vaccine trials, and to increase participation of ethnic and racial minority communities in Texas in these trials.  

Nationwide, other counties included in the project are located in Alabama, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina and Tennessee. 

These teams received initial funding to immediately create CEAL programs, and RTI will serve as the Technical and Administrative Support and Coordination (TASC) center, the NIH stated in a press release. 

The CEAL research teams will focus on COVID-19 awareness and education research, especially among African Americans, Hispanics/Latinos, and American Indians — populations that account for over half of all reported cases in the United States, according to the NIH. 

The Texas CEAL Consortium, which has an estimated $1.8 million budget, includes academic health centers, community-based organizations and health departments in Fort Worth, Dallas, Edinburg, Houston and San Antonio 

HSCBaylor College of MedicineTexas A&M UniversityMD Anderson Cancer CenterUniversity of HoustonUT Health San Antonio and The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley are among higher education institutions working on the project. 

The Texas CEAL Consortium’s technical proposal for the project states that Tarrant is among U.S. counties experiencing the most COVID-19 cases nationwide. 

A total of 577,537 cases and 11,370 deaths have been documented in Texas due to COVID-19 as of August 22, 2020,” the Texas CEAL technical proposal states. Five Texas Counties (Harris, Dallas, Bexar, Hidalgo and Tarrant) are among the top 50 counties in the US with the greatest number of COVID-19 cases. Texas’ underserved constituents are disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic in step with the historical and persistent social inequities and health disparities that exist in Texas and our Nation.” 

As of Sept. 16, Tarrant County had listed 45,583 total COVID-19 cases; including 420 new cases, 612 deaths and 40,077 recoveries. The race and ethnicity among those cases were: 39% unreported, 27% Hispanic, 19% White11% Black and 2% Asian/Pacific Islander. 

Tarrant County Public Health is also a member of the Texas CEAL team. 

“With strong interest and commitment from academic and community partners, the Texas CEAL team came together rather quickly to address the urgent national need to diversify the clinical trial participation in development of COVID-19 therapeutics and vaccines,” Dr. Vishwanatha said. 

Nationwide, the CEAL teams will also promote and facilitate the inclusion and participation of these groups in vaccine and therapeutic clinical trials to prevent and treat the disease. 

“Addressing health disparities affecting racial and ethnic minority populations has long been a priority for NIH,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D. in a press release announcing the award. “The burden of the COVID-19 pandemic borne by diverse communities, especially those that include Blacks and Latinos, makes clear the urgent need for treatments and vaccines that are effective for all Americans. Inclusive research that reflects the entire population is essential to this goal.” 

CEAL is an NIH-wide effort led by the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD) and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). It expands existing community outreach efforts already underway by NIH COVID-19 trial networks. 

The Texas Center for Health Disparities, or TCHD, one of 12 NIMHD Specialized Centers of Excellence in Minority Health and Health Disparities in the country. It conducts research into health disparities, trains new investigators in health disparity research and conducts community outreach. 

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