Chicago Center for HIV Elimination awarded $5M for community COVID-19 testing and prevention

The Chicago Center for HIV Elimination has been awarded $5 million over two years through the National Institute of Health’s (NIH) RADx Underserved Populations program. The money will support a COVID-19 testing project across eight rural and urban sites in the Central U.S. to engage two disenfranchised populations: low-income Latinx individuals and people of any ethnicity who’ve previously been involved with the criminal justice system, but are not currently incarcerated.

A part of the Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics (RADx) initiative, the RADx Underserved Populations (RADx-UP) program will support 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.

“There’s no point in coming up with a new medical treatment or test if no one will take it,” said project leader John Schneider, MD, MPH.

Both groups targeted by this project face some of the highest COVID-19 infection and death rates in the United States. The researchers plan to implement and evaluate a COVID-19 testing approach that combines an evidence-based Social Network Testing Strategy (SNS) with community developed COVID-19 public health messages.

“SNS is an evidence-based testing intervention that has been widely used in multiple settings with marginalized individuals who facilitate the recruitment of their social contacts into testing and prevention services,” Schneider said. “Most commonly used for HIV testing, SNS effectively engages partners, family, friends, co-workers and others who may be susceptible to COVID-19 by further building community partner capacity for COVID-19 testing and prevention services. SNS capitalizes on the individual as a trusted messenger and compensates them for their time, which increases uptake of testing.”

The researchers will also build community-driven COVID-19 messages that both correct misinformation and support an individual’s beliefs and agency to build trust among network members. Their goal is to evaluate these approaches for their effectiveness at increasing COVID-19 testing rates and improving contact tracing within the community, which then improves diagnosis and treatment of the virus in these underserved populations.

UChicago 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, MD, PhD. “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.”

The existing infrastructure and community partnerships of the Center for HIV Elimination will allow for rapid implementation of these approaches, with the network already mobilizing to begin recruiting participants by the start of the new year.

“It’s really important to do this work in the community and to understand their concerns and needs if you want to get them on board and to trust the resources you’re offering,” Schneider said. “The collaborative community-academic partnerships, research and engagement infrastructure we already have will allow us to rapidly recruit, enroll and engage some of our most disenfranchised community members in testing and through this process, accelerate any forthcoming COVID-19 public health prevention interventions.”


Originally published in The Forefront, 10/5/2020