The New Jersey Alliance for Clinical and Translational Science (NJ ACTS) at Rutgers received a $5 million National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant to launch outreach campaigns and expand access to COVID-19 testing for underserved and vulnerable communities in New Jersey.

The grant will fund a Rutgers-led study called the New Jersey Healthcare Essential Worker Outreach and Education Study – Testing Overlooked Occupations, or NJ HEROES TOO, under the NIH’s Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics (RADx) initiative, RADx Underserved Populations (RADx-UP) program. The program supports research that aims to better understand COVID-19 testing patterns among underserved and vulnerable populations; strengthen the data on disparities in infection rates, disease progression and outcomes; and develop strategies to reduce the disparities in COVID-19 testing.

NJ HEROES TOO focuses on the Black and Latinx communities disproportionately affected by COVID-19 in places where Rutgers academic medical centers are deeply rooted. NJ ACTS partnered with community and health care organizations in Essex, Middlesex, Passaic, and Union counties to co-design this study.

Medical sociologist and lead principal investigator for the study, Shawna Hudson, who is also co-director of community engagement for NJ ACTS, reflected that “much of the public attention with ‘frontline health care heroes’ has been focused on doctors and nurses. NJ HEROES TOO focuses on vulnerable health care workers and their families, including home health and personal care aides, maintenance staff, housekeeping, and hospital security, groups which are largely Black and Latinx and have concerns about exposing their families, friends, and communities.”

“This is an incredible opportunity to improve COVID-19 awareness in vulnerable individuals across NJ. It’s a game changer,” said Reynold Panettieri, director of NJ ACTS.

Rutgers is one of 32 institutions that received an NIH award through the RADx-UP program to support projects designed to rapidly implement COVID-19 testing strategies in populations disproportionately affected by the pandemic. These groups include African Americans, American Indians/Alaskan Natives, Latinos/Latinas, Native Hawaiians, older adults, pregnant women, and those who are homeless or incarcerated.

“It is critical that all Americans have access to rapid, accurate diagnostics for COVID-19, especially underserved and vulnerable populations who are bearing the brunt of this disease,” said NIH director Francis S. Collins. “The RADx-UP program will help us better understand and alleviate the barriers to testing for those most vulnerable and reduce the burden of this disease.”

Rutgers researchers are also working with community organizations to understand the best way of communicating the importance of being tested and facilitating COVID-19 at-home saliva self-testing.

“We need to recognize the disparities for Black and Latinx communities. To help address inequities, it is critical that we use an on-the-ground approach by partnering with community members whom they know and trust. We need to ensure that the people and families who need testing and treatment are detected earlier and get help earlier,” added Manny Jiménez, a study principal investigator and director of developmental and behavioral pediatrics education at the Boggs Center on Developmental Disabilities at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.

NJ HEROES TOO will be developed in two phases. The first phase includes an evaluation process involving stakeholder interviews, evidence-based content review, pilot testing, and stakeholder input to inform design and implementation of outreach strategies. The second phase will examine the impact of the study’s outreach strategies on health care workers, their family members and the broader community.

The study brings together researchers, health care professionals, and community partners in a collaborative effort and is led by the following six principal investigators (core faculty members of Rutgers Global Health Institute are listed with links to their institute profiles):

  • Shawna Hudson, professor of family medicine and community health and director of the Center Advancing Research and Evaluation for Patient-Centered Care (CARE-PC) at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and co-director of community engagement for the New Jersey Alliance for Clinical and Translational Science (NJ ACTS);
  • Reynold Panettieri, director of Rutgers Institute for Translational Medicine and Science, director for the New Jersey Alliance for Clinical and Translational Science (NJ ACTS) and professor of medicine, Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School;
  • Emily Barrett, associate professor of biostatistics and epidemiology, Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute, Rutgers School of Public Health;
  • Martin Blaser, director of the Rutgers Center for Advanced Biotechnology and Medicine and professor of medicine, and biochemistry and molecular biology, Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School;
  • Diane Hill, assistant chancellor, University Community Partnerships; assistant professor, Rutgers School of Public Affairs and Administration;
  • Manny Jiménez, assistant professor of pediatrics and family medicine and community health, Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.

Health care and community organizations participating include: Parker Health Group; Visiting Nurse Association Health Group; ASPIRA Association; Central Jersey Family Health Consortium, Inc.; East Orange Senior Volunteer Corporation; Health Coalition of Passaic County; Mobile Family Success Center; New Brunswick Area Branch NAACP; New Brunswick Tomorrow; New Hope NOW Community Development Corporation; Partnership for Maternal and Child Health of Northern New Jersey; Program for Parents; Puerto Rican Action Board; The Bridge; Township of Hillside Senior Recreation Center; United Way of Greater Union County; and Urban League of Union County.

This story by Marisol Seda originally appeared in Rutgers Today.