Community input helps Tennessee address COVID-19 disparities



In September 2020, NIH announced a $12 million award to help communities that have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The award supports 11 research teams in states across the U.S. through the NIH Community Engagement Alliance (CEAL) Against COVID-19 Disparities, with the goal of supporting and facilitating community-engaged research and outreach for communities highly impacted by COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and death.


In April, NIH funded 10 additional research teams. Tennessee is one of the initially funded research teams. “Throughout most of the pandemic, Tennessee has been one of the states most severely affected by COVID-19,” said Paul Juarez, Ph.D., a professor, and the director of the Health Disparities Research Center of Excellence at Meharry Medical College in Nashville. The diversity of the state—from low-income African-American communities in and around Memphis to the tech and entertainment boom in Nashville, to large, sparsely populated rural areas in the Appalachians—has made it difficult to get accurate information about COVID-19, testing, and vaccines to many communities, said Dr. Juarez. He is the principal investigator (PI) of the Tennessee CEAL team. “The strategies we’ve had to develop are really regional strategies. In addition, our strategies are continually being modified in response to the ever-changing nature of the pandemic and our understanding of it.”


Dr. Juarez has spent decades conducting research that engages local communities. In addition to his work at Meharry, Dr. Juarez and his wife, Patricia Matthews-Juarez, Ph.D., established the University of Tennessee Health Science Center’s Research Center on Health Disparities, Equity and the Exposome in Memphis in 2014. He and other Meharry-based researchers involved with Tennessee CEAL have long-standing relationships with community members and health departments. And to address the importance of tailoring information to different areas of the state, the group has western, central, and eastern regional research councils and has connections with academic and community partners across the state, all of which Dr. Juarez oversees. When the Tennessee CEAL team received the grant to address COVID-19 outreach, he said, they “were able to hit the ground running.”


The Tennessee CEAL team’s initial goals were to provide information about COVID-19 and testing to the community and to recruit diverse participants for four COVID-19 clinical trials. To pursue these goals, the team leveraged long-standing community ties and social media to target affected communities. The connection to community is at the center of these efforts, said Stephania Miller-Hughes, Ph.D., MS, MSCI, one of the co-PIs for the central Tennessee region and an associate professor at Meharry. “What’s most important is getting community stakeholders involved in this work and having them as the ambassadors,” she said.


CLICK HERE for the full story.