LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences researchers and community partners across Arkansas are studying the causes behind COVID-19’s impact on minorities and developing plans to help increase vaccination rates.

According to a news release sent by UAMS, the hospital was one of the 11 teams selected as part of the national alliance.

The one-year project is supported by a $1.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Community Engagement Alliance (CEAL) Against COVID-19 Disparities.

Arkansas was identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as a national hot spot for COVID-19 disparities among Marshallese and Hispanic populations. Health officials say the disparities in the percentage of cases, hospitalizations and deaths among the Marshallese and Hispanic populations were so severe that the CDC and NIH visited Northwest Arkansas to investigate.

Pebbles Fagan, Ph.D., MPH, is one of three principal investigators on the study and said Black and rural communities across the state has been hit hard by the pandemic.

“Aggressive steps are needed to protect Black/African American communities from COVID-19 because their life expectancy declined by nearly three years since 2019. This is alarming,” said Fagan.

Laura James, M.D., and Pearl McElfish, Ph.D., MBA, are co-leading the study.

The UAMS CEAL Team project is titled, “COVID-19 PREVENT (Partnership for Rapid Engagement to Enhance Vaccine uptake for Everyone: Neighbors Working Together) Project.”

McElfish said what will be critical to the project’s success will be leveraging a network of UAMS community partners, which represents more than 150 health clinics, community groups and faith-based organizations.

“UAMS has built broad grassroots community partnerships, and we’ll use that to develop and deploy effective strategies to help people better understand the virus and vaccines,” McElfish said. “We’ll also develop methods for improving both trust and access to vaccines.”

“The entire CEAL team is very happy that we have longstanding relationships with many partners who are ready to ramp up existing efforts so that we can reduce COVID-19 related illnesses, disability and deaths,” Fagan said.

UAMS officials say researchers will use a survey of Arkansans to help develop their intervention strategies.

“We need to better understand and address the factors contributing to the disproportionate burden of COVID-19 in minority communities,” James said. “We expect the information we gather, as part of a broad collaboration with our community partners, will help produce strategies for minority and underserved communities to better cope with future pandemics.”

“We want to make sure that Black/African American, Hispanic/Latino and Marshallese, and rural residents have access to trustworthy information to inform their decision-making about getting a vaccine,” Fagan said. “We want to make sure they receive equitable health care treatment and have easy access to a vaccine today and five years from now.”