Racial and ethnic minority communities in the U.S. are disproportionately affected by COVID-19, meaning they have been hit harder by the pandemic than other groups. That's why the National Institutes of Health (NIH) launched a grant program for outreach and engagement in September 2020. In April 2021, the program—the NIH Community Engagement Alliance (CEAL) Against COVID-19 Disparities—announced $29 million in additional grants. CEAL is currently funding programs in 22 states plus the District of Columbia and plans to expand to more states this summer.
CEAL teams are focusing on people in the African American, Hispanic/Latino, American Indian/Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities. These populations account for more than half of COVID-19 cases in the U.S.
The program's goal is to combat "the misinformation that we're all exposed to" and the distrust of COVID-19 research, said Monica Webb Hooper, Ph.D. Dr. Webb Hooper is deputy director of the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD), which is leading the program along with the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI).
"We want to co-create information to educate the public about what clinical trials are and to encourage trust in science," Dr. Webb Hooper said. People may get the idea "that racial minority groups are just completely uninterested in participating in research, and it's not true. But we have to earn their trust." To do that, CEAL teams will partner with a range of local leaders—"those who live, work, and worship in the same communities where the disease has caused the highest rates of sickness and death," said Gary Gibbons, M.D., director of NHLBI. The effort also has personal significance for Dr. Webb Hooper.
"I have three parents who are in vaccine clinical trials," she said. "They're African American and older adults. They're aware of what happened in the past with those horrific studies, such as the Tuskegee study. But they thought it was important to contribute to the scientific mission and to public health by participating and being there—being part of the solution."