The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences has received a $1.4 million federal grant to study covid-19’s disproportionate effects on minority-group populations and to improve efforts to reach those who have been underserved, the school announced Monday.
The goal is to increase vaccinations and save lives.
The research comes as the vaccination gaps for non-Hispanic whites, Blacks and Hispanics are beginning to narrow nationwide.
“It’s clear to me that we’re making progress. We’re not at equity yet, but we’re definitely still making progress,” said Dr. Cameron Webb, the White House’s senior policy adviser for covid-19 equity.
“You’re seeing the concerted efforts, across states, across localities, just to make sure that we’re reaching everybody,” he said. “We know that it doesn’t really serve you well to have inequities with vaccination rates because viruses can cause harm to anyone and everyone.”
In an interview with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, he said the grant gives UAMS “an opportunity to save lives” and to learn more about existing health inequities.
Arkansas reported 103 new covid-19 cases Monday and two additional deaths.
National numbers have fallen sharply in recent months.
But with new variants spreading overseas, the need to get Americans vaccinated remains high, Webb noted.
Covid-19 researchers are performing an important task, he said.
“These kinds of investments, doing deeper research, really understanding the impact of this pandemic on certain communities, disproportionately, is going to reverberate through broader efforts to help address broader health inequities,” he said.
The National Institutes of Health’s Community Engagement Alliance Against COVID-19 Disparities selected UAMS for the yearlong project.
Earlier this year, the National Institutes of Health announced that it would award a total of $29 million for similar projects across the country. Of that amount, $15 million went to 11 teams with existing projects. UAMS was one of 10 new teams that were added to the program.
Dr. Pearl McElfish, director of the UAMS Office of Community Health and Research and one of the study’s co-leaders, said her team has already surveyed 1,300 vaccine recipients in an effort to understand what persuades people to get the shots.
One key goal is to overcome vaccine hesitancy, she said.
“Another major part of this project will be working with churches and worksites and community-based organizations around the state, so that we can partner with them to deliver vaccines and deliver vaccine education, so that we can remove as [many] barriers as possible,” she said. “Even more so than reducing hesitancy, we want to make getting a covid-19 vaccine as easy and convenient as possible for anyone that lives in the state of Arkansas.”
Arkansas has health equity strike teams working to reach underserved communities across the state, according to Dr. Austin Porter, the Arkansas Department of Health’s deputy chief science officer.
“We’re very intentional in making sure that underrepresented minorities were able to receive the vaccine, and because of that, Arkansas has really led the way in making sure that there’s been equitable access to the vaccine for the entire population,” he said.
Six months after the initial vaccine rollout began, vaccination rates vary widely.
Nationwide, 52.5% of the population has received at least one dose. In Arkansas, the figure is 40.7%.
Currently, American Indians and Alaska Natives have the highest vaccination rates of any racial group in the country, thanks to successful efforts by tribal communities; 36% are listed as fully vaccinated by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Americans of Asian descent now have the second-highest vaccination rates, with 31.1% classified as fully vaccinated, compared with 30.1% of non-Hispanic whites.
With the shots now widely available, the demographics are shifting across the country, according to CDC data.
Over the past two weeks, non-Hispanic whites, who make up 61.2% of the population, accounted for 43.1% of those initiating vaccination.
Hispanics make up 17.2% of the population nationally. They accounted for 29.1% of the people initiating vaccination in the past 14 days; 23.5% are listed as fully vaccinated.
Blacks represent 12.4% of the population. Thus far, 20.6% are classified as fully vaccinated. In the past two weeks, 11.6% of those initiating vaccination were Black.
Asians, who make up 5.8% of the population, accounted for 7.3% of those initiating vaccination in the past 14 days.
Overall, 28% of Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders are classified as fully vaccinated.
Race and ethnicity, in the CDC analysis, was only available for 57.1% of the 174.2 million people included.
Webb, the White House senior adviser, stressed the importance of reaching all underserved communities.
In his work, “there are a whole range of potential covid inequities that we stay fixed on,” he said.
“It’s not appropriate for rural communities to see higher levels of cases, hospitalizations, deaths or lower rates of vaccination,” he said. “We have to make sure that isn’t the case.”
The recent upward trend in new coronavirus cases in Arkansas continued Monday as the state’s count rose by 103.
As a result of a drop-off in testing and reporting over the weekend, the state’s daily case increases tend to be smaller on Sundays and Mondays than on other days.
Monday’s increase, however, was the fifth one in a row that was larger than the one a week earlier.
Already at its highest level since the week ending March 22, the average number of cases added to the state’s tallies each day over a rolling seven-day period rose to 225.
State Epidemiologist Jennifer Dillaha said Arkansas’ cases are likely to continue trending upward “for a little while at least.”
She traced the uptick to activity over Memorial Day weekend.
“We had a lot of mixing and socializing and decreased use of masks and social distancing, and of course, we still have a a fair portion of people in Arkansas not vaccinated,” she said.
Faster-spreading coronavirus variants are also playing a role, she said.
On Monday, the Department of Health reported that the number of cases in Arkansas identified as having been caused by the so-called delta variant that first emerged in India had more than tripled, to 27, over the past week.
According to The New York Times, that variant has supplanted the United Kingdom variant, known as alpha, as the most common one in Britain, where Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday announced a postponement of plans to end England’s coronavirus restrictions amid a spike in cases.
Dillaha said she expects the delta variant, which she said is 40% to 50% more transmissible than the alpha variant, to become predominant in Arkansas as well.
“I’m concerned that it will be very easily spread, [and] that it causes more severe disease, so we’ll have a lot more people in the hospital as a result,” Dillaha said.
After rising a day earlier, the number of people hospitalized in the state with covid-19 fell Monday by three, to 203.
The number of the state’s virus patients who were on ventilators, however, rose by eight, to 48, its highest level since March 20.
The state’s death toll from the virus, as tracked by the Department of Health, rose by two, to 5,863.
According to a Health Department report, the number of cases known to have been caused by variants of concern or interest grew last week by 99, to 370.
That included an increase from 207 to 275 in the number of cases found to have been caused by the alpha variant.
The state also reported its first case known to have been caused by the variant from South Africa.
The number of cases identified as having been caused by the variant from Brazil grew by five, to 22, while the number known to have been caused by two different variants from California grew by three, to 39.
The state also reported an increase from two to four in the number of cases confirmed to have been caused by a variant first identified in the United Kingdom and Nigeria and an increase from one to two in the number of cases known to have been caused by another variant from India.
The total number of cases in the state that are caused by variants is unknown because only a small percentage are tested to determine that.
Meanwhile, the pace of vaccinations in the state continued to show signs of slowing following a rebound after Memorial Day weekend.
The number of vaccine doses that providers in the state had reported administering, including second doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, rose Monday by 1,752.
That was 732 doses fewer than the increase reported the previous Monday.
At 5,345, the average number of doses administered each day over a rolling seven-day period was still up from a recent low of fewer than 4,700 a day for the week ending June 5, but it was down from a peak of more than 23,000 a day in early April.
Waning demand for the shots prompted officials to cancel the last of a series of four vaccination clinics at Simmons Bank Arena in North Little Rock.
Leslie Taylor, a spokeswoman for UAMS, said the final clinic, which had been set for Saturday of last week, was called off a few weeks ago in light of declining turnout.
She said UAMS’ vaccination clinic in Little Rock can administer 600 vaccine doses a day, but it has only been giving about 40 a day.
The last clinic at the arena, on May 22, drew about 300 people.
She said the university has also been administering about 100 vaccine shots a week at outpatient clinics on its main campus and about 20 a week at its Northwest Arkansas campus in Fayetteville.
The university also continues to hold mobile clinics at schools, community centers and churches around the state, she said.
“We’re not going to get the big mass group that we’d hoped for at one time, maybe, but we think people will come to those more than they’ll come to a big clinic,” Taylor said.
According to the CDC, 1,227,489 Arkansans, representing 40.7% of the state’s population, had received at least one vaccine dose as of Monday.
That included 983,079 people, or 32.6% of the population, who had been fully vaccinated.
Among the states and District of Columbia, Arkansas ranked 45th in the percentage of residents who had received at least one dose and 49th, ahead of only Alabama and Mississippi, in the percentage who were fully vaccinated.
Nationally, 52.5% of people had received at least one dose, and 43.7% were fully vaccinated.
“We continue to march toward our goal of 50% of Arkansans vaccinated by the end of July,” Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in a tweet.
“While we’re getting closer, we are not there yet. The doses are available across the state, so stop by a pharmacy today to get your shot.”
The cases added to Arkansas’ tallies on Monday included 67 that were confirmed through polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests.
The other 36 were “probable” cases, which include those identified through less-sensitive antigen tests.
The state’s cumulative count of cases rose to 344,067.
That comprised 268,392 confirmed cases and 75,675 probable ones.
The number of cases that were considered active fell by 42, to 2,035, as recoveries outpaced new cases.
Pulaski County had the most new cases, 22, followed by Benton County, which had 11, and Saline and Washington counties, which had seven each.
The Health Department didn’t report any new cases among prison and jail inmates.
The state’s death toll rose by two, to 4,653, among confirmed cases and remained at 1,210 among probable cases.
Among nursing home and assisted living facility residents, the count of virus deaths remained at 2,093.
The number of people who have ever been hospitalized in the state with covid-19 grew by 13, to 16,569.
The number of the state’s virus patients who have ever been on a ventilator remained at 1,689.
Information for this article was contributed by Lara Farrar of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.