KU Medical Center receives grant to support health equity teams and partnerships fighting COVID-19

October 7, 2020
In The News

A new grant of more than $3.5 million was announced Wednesday to the University of Kansas Medical Center to support local projects to rapidly implement COVID-19 testing strategies in areas that are disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

According to the grant announcement, KU Medical Center will partner with community efforts in Wyandotte County as well as nine other Kansas counties for health equity action teams. They will work with local health departments.

Also included are three urban counties, Johnson, Douglas and Sedgwick, and six rural counties, Crawford, Finney, Lyon, Riley, Saline and Seward.

The grant is funded by the National Institutes of Health and KU Medical Center is one of 32 institutions nationwide receiving grants through this RADx-UP program.

At a news conference today at the University of Kansas Health System, doctors discussed ongoing efforts in Wyandotte County through the Health Equity Task Force to reach underserved communities. The efforts helped to build trust with the minority communities, according to the doctors. The new grant is built upon the approach taken in Wyandotte County with the task force, and expands it to a total of 10 counties.

Broderick Crawford, president of the NBC Community Development Corp., who has been active in the Wyandotte County Health Equity Task Force, said at the news conference that the task force partnered with the Wyandotte County Health Department and community faith leaders to address the disparities that occur with COVID-19 in Wyandotte County. Crawford will be one of four persons overseeing the KU Medical Center grant.

The coronavirus has adversely affected the Hispanic and African-American community, as well as the community as a whole, he said.

The Health Equity Task Force has been successful at providing COVID-19 testing sites in church parking lots and places that are trusted by the community, and they are very happy at what they were able to accomplish, he said.

Because of the task force, Wyandotte County had a model they thought could be successful and work in other environments, said Dr. Allen Greiner, Wyandotte County Health Department chief medical officer. Dr. Greiner, also one of the persons overseeing the grant, said they put in a grant applications about six weeks ago to be one of 36 partners in the program.

Dr. Greiner said they learned through the task force that it was important to be visible in the community, interacting with the residents. In the future they may try to partner with large workplaces for testing, he added.

The Health Department also has been collecting information on problems that people who have COVID-19 are experiencing, such as food insecurity issues, and connecting them with resources, he said.

Dr. Greiner said listening to people and learning about their needs is a big part of the new grant.

A spokesman for KU Medical Center stated that the average investment per county for this project will be about $300,000. The investment in Wyandotte County will be closer to twice that, at around $600,000, according to Kay Hawes, spokesman for the medical center. That is because the efforts in Wyandotte County, including the Wyandotte County Health Equity Task Force, are serving as a model for other counties, and community leaders from Wyandotte County will be tapped as consultants to the other counties. Hawes stated.

“We know that underserved minority and rural communities have been disproportionately affected by COVID, leading to more serious illnesses and more deaths,” said Dr. Edward Ellerbeck, chair of the Department of Population Health and professor at the KU School of Medicine and one of the study’s co-principal investigators, in a news release. “The idea here is to partner with communities and local health departments to help address inequities, beginning with inequities in testing, and the vast majority of these funds will go into these counties and directly into these at-risk communities.”

Part of the NIH’s Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics (RADx) initiative, the RADx Underserved Populations (RADx-UP) program, KU Medical Center’s $3.5 million grant will be overseen by four principal investigators: Dr. Mario Castro, vice chair for clinical and translational research in the Department of Internal Medicine and a pulmonologist at the KU School of Medicine; Broderick Crawford, president of the NBC Community Development Corporation, the outreach arm of the New Bethel Church in Kansas City, Kansas; Dr. Edward Ellerbeck, chair of the Department of Population Health and professor at the KU School of Medicine; and Dr. Allen Greiner, vice chair of the Department of Family Medicine and professor at the KU School of Medicine, and county health officer in Wyandotte County.

“It is critical that all Americans have access to rapid, accurate diagnostics for COVID-19, especially underserved and vulnerable populations who are bearing the brunt of this disease,” said the NIH director, Dr. Francis S. Collins, in a news release. “The RADx-UP program will help us better understand and alleviate the barriers to testing for those most vulnerable and reduce the burden of this disease.”

KU Medical Center researchers will conduct a needs assessment in each county and then partner with communities in each county to develop messages and strategies specific to their community, according to the news release.

Working with the Local Health Equity Action Teams, KU researchers will take their cues from the communities. “In some cases, we will support what they’re already doing. In some cases, we will complement what they’re doing,” said Mariana Ramirez, director of JUNTOS Center for Advancing Latino Health in the Department of Population Health at KU Medical Center and one of eight co-investigators on the grant. “It is critical that we listen to each community and assist them with what is needed there.”

Dr. Castro, who also directs the KU Clinical and Translational Science Institute, known as Frontiers, pointed out that this grant is unique because it relies on partnerships in the community and throughout the state.

“It is an exciting grant for KU Medical Center and for our partners because it will capitalize on the infrastructure we have built with Frontiers and community partners and help all of us work together to address disparities within our underserved communities,” Dr. Castro said. “A number of studies have shown that African-American, Hispanic and rural communities have a higher prevalence of hospitalization and deaths, and there is some evidence that the virus also is more severe in these communities, perhaps due to a higher proportion of risk factors, such as obesity and high blood pressure. And when we look at rural counties, we also see overwhelmed practitioners and no infrastructure for conducting clinical trials. With the RADx-UP resources, we think this could really be a win-win relationship with these communities.”

KU Medical Center has been working throughout the pandemic with Wyandotte County community leaders, and Dr. Greiner explained that the statewide effort will be modeled after the work of the Health Equity Task Force in Wyandotte County, according to the news release.

“We’ve had some really great community partners step up in Wyandotte County,” Dr. Greiner said. “There’s been a lot of collaboration. Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen some really tough issues throughout the community. We think our partners can help share lessons learned, and those best practices can be valuable in advising other counties.”

While the underserved populations in each county may be different, many of the obstacles are the same. Multiple generations may be living in one household, with members of the family engaged in high-risk, essential work, perhaps in meatpacking or cleaning industries. Often, there are issues with lack of health insurance and lack of sick leave, along with lack of access to medical care and lack of COVID-19 testing.

“We saw the first COVID-19 death in Kansas in Wyandotte County, but there was no testing in Wyandotte County at that time,” Crawford said. “We determined we needed to take testing into the community.”

Crawford noted that pop-up testing sites in churches, libraries and colleges were well attended. “We put pop-up sites in places in the community where the need was greatest and also in places people trusted,” he said.

“With this grant, the idea is to be able to share the successes in Wyandotte County with the nine other counties throughout Kansas,” Crawford said. “It won’t look the same in each of these counties, but we want to provide information and lessons learned. One thing COVID has shown all of is that there has to be joint collaborative effort by all of us—researchers, community leaders, faith leaders, doctors, health offices—to fight this disease.”

“Many people in our community face difficulty accessing health care, and these disparities have become even more apparent as a result of the COVID-19 crisis,” Rep. Sharice Davids, D-3rd DIst., who helped advocate for the grant, said. “I’m glad to have played a role in securing this funding and I’m excited to see the community-informed work that has begun in Wyandotte County with the local Health Equity Task Force. I look forward to seeing this work expand to assist other regions in Kansas.”

According to a spokesman for Rep. Davids, the grant will gather information about testing among underserved populations, find out more about infection rates and outcomes, as well as make strategies aimed at lessening disparities in testing. The program will use existing community partnerships to implement strategies that will increase access for testing.