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Matthews joins UIC-led effort to reduce COVID-19 disparities in Chicago area

COVID-19 vaccine at Mile Square

The University of Illinois Chicago has been selected by the National Institutes of Health as the principal site of a multi-center collaborative in the Chicago area that will bolster research and outreach to help communities disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

As part of the NIH’s Community Engagement Alliance, or CEAL, Against COVID-19 Disparities initiative, the UIC-led team will focus on strengthening COVID-19 vaccine confidence and access in Chicago-area Black and Latino communities, as well as improving access to testing, treatment and opportunities for clinical trial participation.

Phoenix Matthews, PhD, associate dean for equity and inclusion, is part of the Chicagoland COVID Collaborative. The team also includes co-principal investigators from Loyola University, Equal Hope, Northwestern University, Rush University Medical Center, Sinai Urban Health Center and the University of Chicago. The collaborative is supported by a $1.4 million NIH grant.

In Chicago, rates of COVID-19 cases are greatest among Black and Latino residents, significantly outpacing rates among white residents. Despite this and efforts in the city to deliver the vaccine to vulnerable communities, early data on vaccinations show lower rates of COVID-19 vaccination among Black and Latino adults.

“Black and Latinx communities have historically had unequal access to health care services and research,” said Dr. Molly Martin, associate professor of pediatrics at the College of Medicine and principal investigator. “We will focus on these issues of structural racism, with the goal of improving vaccination rates and, importantly, we will do this in partnership with the people and organizations that are already in the communities working as leaders and trusted messengers.”

In addition to its goals of increasing vaccine uptake and engagement with health care providers for testing, treatment and trials, the collaborative also will leverage best practices in community-engaged research and implementation science to support and test various adaptive interventions to address structural barriers to health care services in Chicago and surrounding areas.

“Community engagement is about being present, listening and meeting the needs of communities in a lasting way — it’s about strengthening opportunities and programs in partnership with communities, validating what they have and know, and ensuring that services and programs are meaningful and sustainable,” Martin said.

For example, Martin said the team will work with community partners to create an inventory of vaccine awareness, education, and distribution programs and evaluate these programs to help identify which strategies are more effective.

“If a lot of effort is going into a program but the impact is low, we want to work with our partners and the data to understand why. We will support them to describe barriers and potential solutions. We will help identify critical resources linked to success and pathways for obtaining and maintaining those resources. Answering these kinds of questions moves us closer to more equitable health access and outcomes, for COVID-19 and beyond,” Martin said.

Martin says that while increasing vaccine uptake is a focus now, the collaborative is designed to address all kinds of barriers and public health goals.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has made clear the inequities cemented into the foundations of our social system; the consequences of these inequities in access, trust and engagement with the health care system affect us all,” Martin said.

The collaborative is one of 10 new teams to receive CEAL funding in 2021, according to a news release from the NIH. The NIH-wide effort is co-led by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities.