Researchers at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences are starting a one-year project to look at disparities between minority communities and the state’s general population when it comes to COVID-19.
The project is being funded by a $1.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, with UAMS being one of 11 teams selected nationwide. Researchers hope their efforts will increase vaccination rates among minorities.
One of two people leading the study is Dr. Pearl McElfish, director of the UAMS Office of Community Health and Research, who is also vice chancellor for the UAMS Northwest Regional Campus and leads the Special Populations Core for the Translational Research Institute. She spoke with KUAR News Monday for an interview during All Things Considered about how the project will work.
KUAR NEWS: Arkansas was identified last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a national hot spot for COVID-19 disparities among Hispanic and Marshallese populations. First, how severe were these disparities and how were people impacted?
DR. PEARL MCELFISH: The disparities we saw were really devastating to those communities. For example, Marshallese communities make up about 2% of the overall population in northwest Arkansas, they accounted for about 15 to 17% of the overall cases. Similarly, the Hispanic Latino community make up about 15 to 17% of northwest Arkansas, but accounted for about 40% of the overall cases. So the disparities we saw were really astounding. We also saw higher death rates and higher hospitalization rates, particularly among the Marshallese community. As we move in to vaccination, we're really concerned that the low vaccination rates among these communities, among Marshallese and Hispanic Latino communities, could increase those disparities even further.
And before we get into vaccinations, Black Arkansans have also been hard hit. I read in the announcement about this project that since 2019, the life expectancy for Black or African-Americans in the state has actually declined by nearly three years. That’s quite disturbing.
Absolutely. And this is a statewide project, so in northwest Arkansas, we've been focused primarily on those two populations that have had the highest disparities, Marshallese and Hispanic/Latino. But statewide, we have seen disparities in several minority communities, including African-American/Black communities and also rural communities throughout Arkansas, regardless of race and ethnicity.
So talk about the research that will be done during this project.
So the research will really focus on understanding the hesitancy [to get vaccinated], but even more so than that, how to overcome that hesitancy. And so some of the project will focus on what we call hesitant adopters. And what our initial research has found is that there are people who get vaccinated that still have hesitancy, and understanding what information and what facilitators allow them to get vaccinated, even given their hesitancy, is critically important.
Another research area will be understanding not just how race is correlated or predictive of vaccine hesitancy, but how our experiences of racism affecting vaccine hesitancy. And so if our communities experience racism in the health care system or at work or through the justice system, how is that translating into greater hesitancy towards the institutions that are giving the vaccines? And so those are two of the studies, but more than studies to understand, this project will be implementation studies to really help people get the vaccines.
And so we are going to be working with churches and small businesses to go to those organizations and provide vaccinations within their organizations to remove barriers. And we're also going to be working with non-profits throughout the state to help build their capacity, really at the grassroots level, to be a voice for all the communities throughout Arkansas to help educate people about the COVID-19 vaccine and help increase the opportunity for people to become vaccinated.