The New Jersey Alliance for Clinical and Translational Science (NJ ACTS) at Rutgers was recently awarded a $5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to help improve outreach for coronavirus disease (COVID-19) testing and expand testing efforts in underserved communities.
Shawna Hudson, the lead principal investigator for the study and co-director of Community Engagement for NJ ACTS, discussed the importance of this grant and how it is going to be used. The other principal investigators include Reynold Panettieri, Emily Barrett, Martin Blaser, Diane Hill and Manny Jiménez.
“I think it's important because we know that we have disparities here in New Jersey that need to be addressed,” Hudson said. “This is finally bringing a significant amount of resources, given that it's $5 million, to really be able to do it in a targeted way across four of our most in-need counties.”
The project is called the New Jersey Healthcare Essential Worker Outreach and Education Study – Testing Overlooked Occupations (NJ HEROES TOO) and will focus on serving Black and Latinx minority communities, who have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, in Union, Passaic, Essex and Middlesex counties, according to a press release.
“We know that vulnerable communities are profoundly under-tested,” Hudson said. “There's access to testing issues, but then there's also concerns and myths around what the impact of testing will do.”
These issues, along with social determinants of health like having limited resources, limited economic resources or poorer health, to begin with, tend to lead to disproportionate outcomes concerning COVID-19 for these vulnerable communities, Hudson said.
NJ HEROES TOO has two major components that seek to combat these disparities, she said.
“The first (phase) is about engaging the community in developing targeted outreach, messages, materials and toolkits around COVID-19 and the importance of testing,” Hudson said. “(We are) going to do some focus groups to really understand what the issues are, from the different perspectives, from both health care workers and community members.”
The project involves working with 16 community organizations across the four counties, as well as healthcare workers from Parker Health Group and the Visiting Nurse Association to be able to design the outreach, she said.
The second phase involves taking what they learned in the first phase and using this to complete a research study, Hudson said. The study will look at testing as the outcome and see how quickly they are able to get community members into testing via two different methods, she said.
“One (method) is through healthcare workers talking with their family members and their community about the importance of testing, and then the other is working with our community-based organizations,” Hudson said.
The specific community organizations in New Brunswick the project is working with include New Brunswick Tomorrow, the Puerto Rican Action Board, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Central Jersey Family Health Consortium, she said.
“We're really focusing on people who have not really been talked about as essential workers but are just as essential,” Hudson said. “Not your nurses and doctors, but really your home health aides, nursing assistants, maintenance (and) other people who are essential ... but (who) haven't necessarily gotten a lot of press and tend to be both minority and also economically vulnerable.”
Hudson said that the majority of the grant will go toward providing testing, which will be done using the Rutgers saliva test.
“It's going to pay for testing for participants, it's going to pay for the outreach campaign, (which involves) enduring materials and toolkits (and) we're also paying our partners in addition to faculty and staff salaries,” she said.
The grant also includes funding for personal protective equipment (PPE) for staff and resources used to create additional information surrounding COVID-19 and testing, Hudson said.
“(This project) is important because we want to get the message out that testing helps,” she said. “If we can do testing and testing earlier, and we can get people to care, then hopefully that will increase better outcomes.”
Hudson said she believes a lot of people are scared of testing and what it means in terms of their livelihoods. One goal of the project is to be able to build trusting relationships with these communities so that they feel there are people ready to help them get through this pandemic, she said.
“What we want to do here that's different is to make sure that (there are) already resources in the community for people as they're sort of moving through this process,” Hudson said.
It is important not only to promote testing for these communities but to help them so that they know where to go and what to do for treatment, she said. It’s about being able to navigate through all of the steps that are involved with COVID-19, Hudson said.
“We want to address myths and address fears that people have, and I think mostly what we want to do is to see some better and stronger connections with our community at large,” she said.