Tulane, Xavier work to address COVID-19 misperceptions in minority communities

Updated: Dec. 9, 2020 at 7:04 PM CST
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An African American patients receives hospital care.
An African American patients receives hospital care.(Source: WVUE)

NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - The numbers show how COVID-19 has disproportionately affected the African American community, so researchers at some local universities are working with the National Institutes of Health to reach out to blacks about the virus, concerns about vaccines and address misperceptions, including those about healthcare in general. As part of that, Tulane University has been awarded a $1 million grant from the NIH to engage vulnerable communities hard hit by the virus.

Dr. M. Tonette Krousel-Wood, professor of medicine and epidemiology at Tulane University in New Orleans is a principal investigator for the outreach initiative. She said the goal is to gather the community’s perspective and to provide accurate information about the virus.

“There are misperceptions and misunderstandings around COVID-19 and to address these and build hand-in-hand with our community a HALT COVID in Louisiana Education Program to address these concerns,” said Krousel-Wood.

Dr. Daniel Sarpong, Xavier University’s Director of the Center for Minority Health and Health Disparities Research and Education is the other principal investigator for the initiative.

He said a big part of the effort includes listening to the community’s views on COVID-19.

“And learn what the community is saying to us and then develop a program, an educational program that is palatable, that community sees itself in it,” said Sarpong.

Krousel-Wood was asked about the kinds of misperceptions they are hoping to tackle.

“From what we’re hearing from our communities they’re concerned that the vaccine might actually give them COVID, we’re hearing that there are concerns that perhaps the vaccine could make them sick, we’re hearing from different groups that perhaps there’s some unintended consequence, or reason for giving the vaccine that might result in, in bad things happening to good people and of course the historical tragedies that have happened have certainly fueled that,” said Krousel-Wood.

Sarpong agreed there are concerns being voiced related to vaccinations for the coronavirus.

“In doing the focus groups in the community we hear these pushbacks, the pushback with vaccines, folks don’t trust it,” said Sarpong.

Distrust of clinical trials, vaccines, and healthcare in general by some African Americans dates back to 1932 and the then called “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male.” The study went on for nearly 40 years, ending in 1972.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control the federal government-involved study was conducted without patients’ informed consent and it says researchers told the men they were being treated for “bad blood”. Further, the CDC says adequate treatment for syphilis was withheld. The study ended after the Associated Press broke the story and it caused an outcry, says the CDC.

“I think this is why we felt the need to really engage the community. We know there is a lot of mistrust or lack of trustworthiness of the medical establishment and rightfully so, but we’re also at an era that we can’t get stuck in the past,” said Sarpong.

Krousel-Wood agrees.

“Those days are behind us, the focus now with black leaders, black scientists, black doctors, at the table, making the decisions, participating in the science, evaluating the data,” said Krousel-Wood. “It is a valid, historical concern, it certainly is, but it is a different day, it is a new day and the scientific leaders, and the black community are well-represented, they are at the head table in all the decisions being made in the science that’s being conducted.”

Krousel-Wood and Sarpong said their work involves interacting with leaders in the local faith-based community.

“And they are engaging their members in their faith-based organizations to participate in the surveys that help us get information from the people on what their concerns are,” said Krousel-Wood.

And Sarpong said there is valuable information from faith leaders themselves.

“We feel that’s it’s very important to hear what the faith-based leaders are thinking and how they’re coping in dealing with COVID-19,” Sarpong said.

The Louisiana Community Engagement Alliance (LA-CEAL) of which Krousel-Wood and Sarpong are a part is working to raise awareness about COVID-19 and fight misperceptions in Orleans, Jefferson, East Baton Rouge, and nearby rural parishes.

“I think most people are also well aware that the African American or black community was really hardest hit of all, so for the initial phase of our LA-CEAL that is the focus of our program; is making sure that we are getting the outreach to the diversities in those communities, focusing on our black and African American population to make sure that we are addressing the needs and the concerns,” said Krousel-Wood.

LA-CEAL also includes LSU and the alliance will also reach out to Latinos and American Indians.

“Take this very seriously because the virus doesn’t discriminate,” said Sarpong.

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