UAMS Receives $1.4 Million Grant to Study COVID-19 Disparities

A national alliance is working to improve vaccination rates in minority communities.

A Marshallese resident in Northwest Arkansas receives a COVID-19 vaccine
A Marshallese resident in Northwest Arkansas receives a COVID-19 vaccine. Photo courtesy of UAMS.

Researchers at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and their community partners across the state are studying the causes behind COVID-19’s devastating impact on minorities and developing plans to help increase vaccination rates.

Supporting the one-year project is a $1.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Community Engagement Alliance (CEAL) Against COVID-19 Disparities. UAMS was one of 11 teams selected as part of the national alliance, according to a press release.

Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified Arkansas as a national hot spot for COVID-19 disparities among Marshallese and Hispanic populations. The disparities in percentage of cases, hospitalizations and deaths among these populations were so severe that CDC and NIH officials visited Northwest Arkansas to investigate.

African American and rural communities across the state have been struck hard, too, said Pebbles Fagan, one of three principal investigators on the study.

“Aggressive steps are needed to protect Black/African American communities from COVID-19 because their life expectancy declined by nearly three years since 2019. This is alarming,” she said.

Fagan, director of Research for the Office of Health Initiatives and Disparities Research in the College of Medicine’s Department of Surgery and Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute, is co-leading the study with Dr. Laura James, director of the UAMS Translational Research Institute, and Pearl McElfish, director of the UAMS Office of Community Health and Research.

UAMS Principal Investigators Pearl McElfish, Ph.D., MBA, Pebbles Fagan, Ph.D., MPH, and Laura James, M.D.
UAMS Principal Investigators Pearl McElfish, Ph.D., MBA, Pebbles Fagan, Ph.D., MPH, and Laura James, M.D.

The UAMS CEAL Team project is titled, COVID-19 PREVENT (Partnership for Rapid Engagement to Enhance Vaccine uptake for Everyone: Neighbors Working Together) Project.

Critical to the project’s success will be leveraging a network of UAMS community partners representing more than 150 health clinics, community groups and faith-based organizations, McElfish said.

“UAMS has built broad grassroots community partnerships, and we’ll use that to develop and deploy effective strategies to help people better understand the virus and vaccines,” she said. “We’ll also develop methods for improving both trust and access to vaccines.”

Researchers will use a survey of Arkansans to aid the development of their intervention strategies.

“We need to better understand and address the factors contributing to the disproportionate burden of COVID-19 in minority communities,” James said. “We expect the information we gather — as part of a broad collaboration with our community partners — will help produce strategies for minority and underserved communities to better cope with future pandemics.”

Researchers are working to ensure minority communities and rural residents have access to trustworthy information to inform their decision-making about getting a vaccine, Fagan said.

“We want to make sure they receive equitable health care treatment and have easy access to a vaccine today and five years from now,” she said.