SDSU gets $5M toward virus resources for Latino residents

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SAN DIEGO (CNS) – Researchers at San Diego State University announced Wednesday they are using a $5 million federal grant to increase testing and curb the disparity at which Latino residents in San Diego County suffer from COVID- 19 and its impacts.

As part of the grant, from the National Institutes of Health, SDSU public health faculty are partnering with community organizations to deploy rapid COVID-19 testing throughout the San Diego region. The effort, “Communities Fighting COVID!,” aims to test 42,000 people in 14 months.

“This has real potential to mitigate the pandemic here in San Diego and greatly reduce health disparities and poor outcomes,” said Hala Madanat, interim vice president for research and innovation at SDSU and one of the project’s leaders. “We are laying the groundwork for a successful coronavirus vaccine rollout, building thoughtful and sustainable ways to reach vulnerable people.”

In San Diego County, Latino residents are three times more likely than white residents to become infected with the disease, and they account for 61% of local hospitalizations, according to county figures.

The county Health and Human Services Agency recently awarded a separate $3 million award to SDSU researchers to develop and deploy a rigorous contact tracing program targeting underserved communities.

At the center of both grants are community health workers who connect people with resources. Dozens of such workers are already deployed as part of SDSU’s existing work with the county, and their numbers will be increased as part of the project to bolster COVID-19 testing.

The team is using data on new infections and testing access, along with community input, to decide where to prioritize community-based testing locations. Pop-up testing sites in San Diego neighborhoods may include settings such as church parking lots and food distribution sites.

Public Health researchers are leading the project, partnering with nine community organizations. Investigators plan to continually improve testing implementation as the project progresses using a community-led rapid cycle research process, in which a team of community partners identifies, evaluates and refines testing and outreach strategies throughout the course of the project.

“Applying the lessons learned from other health crises — like the global HIV epidemic — to our approach with community-based rapid COVID testing can help guide our efforts to ensure access to COVID testing for those most affected, ultimately reducing disparities in disease and deaths,” said Susan Kiene, one of the researchers.

The coalition’s stated goal is to reach people of color and immigrant communities that have challenges accessing existing COVID-19 testing due to transportation, language barriers, work schedules or lack of perceived risk.

Researchers are focusing on individuals who are at high risk of exposure, such as essential workers, and those who have been exposed but may not have symptoms. They want to test individuals proactively, flagging asymptomatic spreaders as a way to prevent outbreaks.

Participants who test positive will be encouraged to refer recent contacts, as well as friends and family with high exposure risk, to the free testing program.

The grant is part of NIH’s Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics Underserved Populations Initiative, a national effort to better understand COVID-19 testing patterns among underserved and vulnerable populations. The program is intended to strengthen the data on disparities in infection rates, disease progression and outcomes; and develop strategies to reduce the disparities in COVID-19 testing.

SDSU is one of 32 institutions to receive an NIH award through the initiative to support projects designed to rapidly implement COVID-19 testing strategies in populations disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

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