November 18, 2020 — Armed with a $1 million award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Universities and health care entities throughout the state of Florida are collaborating to provide outreach and engagement to ethnic and racial minority communities disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Led by population health experts and physicians with the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, the effort titled “Community Engagement Alliance Against COVID-19 Disparities” or the Florida CEAL Team, includes a diverse group of partner experts at Florida International University, the University of Florida, Florida A&M University, Moffitt Cancer Center and Health Choice Network. Both the University of Florida and the University of Miami are part of the OneFlorida Clinical Research Consortium, a statewide network of academic health systems, hospitals and clinics established in 2015 to help facilitate and accelerate health research in Florida.
“We are privileged to lead a coalition that will address one of our state’s most pressing public health concerns,” said the project’s principal investigator Olveen Carrasquillo, M.D., M.P.H., professor, Department of Medicine and Public Health Sciences, and chief of the Division of General Internal Medicine at UM. “Disparities in COVID-19 infections are a concern, as African-Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans account for more than half of all reported cases in the United States. We want to counteract misinformation about COVID-19, understand barriers to care, and promote minority participation in vaccine and therapeutic clinical trials.”
Researchers attribute elevated COVID-19 prevalence and mortality rates in underserved communities to structural inequalities and social determinants of health. The statewide CEAL initiative —comprised of several projects led by regional partners—is aimed at devising strategies to counteract misinformation about COVID-19, understanding and overcoming barriers to care, and promoting minority participation in vaccine and therapeutic clinical trials.
Working with community organizations, the Florida CEAL Team will develop community-based outreach activities aimed at promoting evidence-based COVID health promotion practices and participation in clinical trials. They will also implement and evaluate the impact of strategies that increase the enrollment of minorities into COVID vaccine and therapeutic trials.
"We know that this virus does not discriminate,” said Folakemi Odedina, Ph.D., University of Florida joint professor in radiation oncology, pharmacotherapy and translational research and director of the CaRE2 Health Equity Center. “We also know that COVID-19 significantly impacts minority communities. Joining together with our partners around the state to support to some of the hardest hit communities is a crucial step in achieving our common goal of eradicating coronavirus in Black and Latinx communities.”
“When the pandemic hit, many of Florida’s minority and ethnic communities were already coping with serious health disparities, including higher rates of cancer, obesity, diabetes, hypertension and heart disease,” said Elizabeth A. Shenkman, Ph.D., chair of the department of health outcomes and biomedical informatics in the College of Medicine at University of Florida Health, whose expertise includes quality of care and improving health outcomes for Florida’s publicly insured residents. “COVID-19 added one more.”
Dr. Shenkman, who is also the principal investigator of the OneFlorida Clinical Research Consortium, said the statewide network of health systems, hospitals and clinics was able to quickly mobilize to provide outreach and resources for these communities, especially those with limited access to health care services and support for COVID-19.
Projects by site are as follows:
University of Miami Miller School of Medicine (UM):
UM will be involved in two projects. The Center for Latino Health Research Opportunities will partner with investigators at FIU to promote evidence based COVID prevention practices. UM researchers will also work to boost minority enrollment in the multiple COVID-19 vaccine clinical trials that UM is leading in South Florida.
Health Choice Network (HCN):
HCN will examine the barriers and facilitators among HCN patients for participation in COVID-19 research studies and the perceptions among providers about having their patients participate in such studies. HCN will also promote and facilitate the participation of patients in COVID-19 studies at UM.
University of Florida (UF):
UF will be involved in two projects. The university’s Health’s CaRE2 Health Equity Center, led by Dr. Odedina, center director and UF joint professor in radiation oncology, pharmacotherapy and translational research, will coordinate COVID-19 outreach efforts to some of the hardest hit communities in northern and central Florida, including Alachua, Duval, Lake, Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties.
UF investigators will also work to increase participation of underrepresented populations in various COVID clinical trials sponsored by the OneFlorida Clinical Research Consortium.
Florida A&M University (FAMU):
FAMU’s project is led by principal investigator Cynthia M. Harris, Ph.D. director of the FAMU Institute of Public Health and associate dean of the FAMU College of Pharmacy & Pharmaceutical Sciences, Institute of Public Health. In collaboration with UF, FAMU will involve provide community outreach and engagement to determine the level of awareness and understanding of COVID-19 in the African American community.
They will identify corresponding solutions to increase engagement and participation in COVID-19-related research studies. The teams will utilize Community Health Workers (CHWs) focusing on North Central Florida (Leon and Wakulla) and the Panhandle (Gadsden and Jefferson counties).
Florida International University (FIU):
FIU is leading two projects. One project- led by co-principal investigators Mario De la Rosa and Elena Bastida– is aimed at understanding factors that contribute to the disproportionate burden of COVID-19 in underserved Latinx communities and establish effective, community-engaged strategies to advance the prevention and treatment of COVID-19 and reduce disease disparities.
In a second effort, led by researchers Eric Wagner and Adriana Campa and supported by the Research Center in a Minority Institution at Florida International University (FIU-RCMI) will be devoted to community-university partnered clinical and behavioral research addressing health inequities and disparities affecting underrepresented minority communities in the three South Florida counties (Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach).
Moffitt Cancer Center:
To help boost awareness about COVID-19 among minority communities and assuring equitable representation in clinical trials and research, Susan Vadaparampil, Ph.D., M.P.H., and her team at the Moffitt Cancer Center will work with two local community clinics to hear from providers and patients about their understanding and perspectives surrounding COVID-19, and factors that might prevent or facilitate these patients from participating in COVID-19 research. Moffitt will help ensure minority community perspectives from the Tampa Bay Area region are considered when developing messages and recruitment approaches to support COVID outreach, research and care across the state.
“Given the devastation COVID-19 has caused on African Americans and other communities of color, all of these projects are vital,” said FAMU’s Dr. Harris. “If we are to end the tragedy of this pandemic, we must be proactive in our outreach and understand the disproportionate challenges faced by communities of color.”