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UTHSC Participating in Statewide Research to Prevent COVID-19 Disparities and Improve Health Outcomes Among Underserved Tennesseans

Researchers at UTHSC are participating in a project that will coordinate statewide, community-engaged research to reduce spread and adverse outcomes from COVID-19 among ethnic minority and socially vulnerable persons.

Researchers at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center are participating in a project to improve COVID-19 health outcomes among underserved Tennesseans.

The Tennessee Community Engagement Alliance (CEAL) Against COVID-19 Disparities was established in response to the National Institutes of Health nationwide CEAL initiative. The $1 million statewide effort is being led by Meharry Medical College, and UTHSC is one of 33 academic and community partners across Tennessee collaborating on the project. Two UTHSC faculty members are serving as co-principal investigators for West Tennessee.

The TN CEAL project will coordinate statewide, community-engaged research to reduce spread and adverse outcomes from COVID-19 among ethnic minority and socially vulnerable persons.

Investigators for the project at UTHSC are Jim Bailey, MD, MPH, the Robert S. Pearce endowed chair in Internal Medicine, professor of Medicine and Preventive Medicine, and director for the Center for Health System Improvement in the College of Medicine; Altha Stewart, MD, senior associate dean for Community Health Engagement in the College of Medicine, associate professor of Psychiatry, director of the Center for Health in Justice Involved Youth, and director of the Division of Social and Community Psychiatry for the College of Medicine; Laura Harris, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry in the College of Medicine; Susan Butterworth, PhD, associate professor of Medicine in the Center for Health System Improvement; and Fridtjof Thomas, PhD, biostatistician and professor in the Division of Biostatistics, Department of Preventive Medicine in the College of Medicine. Drs. Bailey and Stewart are serving as co-PIs for West Tennessee.

The goal of the project is to broaden understanding and better address the factors that contribute most to disparities in COVID-19 infection and death rates impacting African Americans and the Latinx community in Tennessee. The TN CEAL project seeks to establish effective strategies within the community to increase knowledge and awareness of how to prevent COVID-19 infection, expand testing, and improve vaccine readiness. The long-term goal of TN CEAL is to better address structural inequities and social determinants of health driving racial and ethnic disparities in infection and death rates from COVID-19.

“People with low incomes are at increased risk of COVID-19 infection, because they more often serve as front-line workers and live in more crowded households,” Dr. Bailey said. “And because low-income people don’t have equal access to healthful food, opportunity for exercise, and primary and preventive care, they are more likely to suffer from obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, conditions that put them at much higher risk of death from COVID-19. We are testing whether intensive support from community health workers in developing their own COVID-19 prevention strategies and encouraging vaccination, can help the most vulnerable people in our community protect themselves and their families from COVID-19.”

Researchers will collaborate with community partners on multi-level, comprehensive solutions to help distinguish and address the gaps and barriers in knowledge, awareness, and structural inequities that are endangering vulnerable populations in Tennessee during the pandemic.

“This is a statewide effort being customized for each of the regions,” Dr. Stewart said. “The partners are working to assure that there is a consistency to the implementation of the interventions and the community education components, but each region’s leadership is identifying any unique regional resources or cultural norms that will encourage a successful outcome for those participating in the project.”

Statewide partners include the Tennessee Health Department Office of Minority Health; Health Disparities Coalition; the Tennessee Primary Care Association; the Diabetes Wellness and Prevention Coalition (DWPC) Practice-Based Research Network; AARP; Second Harvest; and Essential Needs.

Community partners include Cherokee Health Systems and the Shelby County Health Department. The West Tennessee Regional Research Council for the project includes UTHSC, the University of Memphis, the Shelby County Health Department, Cherokee Health Systems, and many other community partners.

For more information and resources visit: https://covid19community.nih.gov/ and https://www.uthsc.edu/coronavirus/index.php.