As COVID-19 continues to disproportionately impact people of color in Washington, local researchers are trying to enroll diverse volunteers in an ongoing study of the disease.
The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center recently created a Spanish version of CovidWatch, an Amazon-funded study launched in the spring that monitors front-line workers, such as grocery store clerks, health care personnel and bus drivers, over six months through blood draws and nasal swabs.
“What we know about COVID is that communities of color are overrepresented and disproportionately affected by both the rates of infection, and also the rates of severe disease,” said Dr. Alpana Waghmare, assistant professor in Fred Hutch’s vaccine and infectious disease division.
Waghmare hopes that recruiting more people of color to participate in the study will help researchers better understand how the coronavirus impacts populations at the greatest risk of exposure. Researchers plan to do so by tracking changes in the antibody responses and viral loads of infected volunteers.
Latinos comprise 41% of the state’s positive COVID-19 cases as of Sept. 27, although they make up 13% of Washington’s population. The second-highest rate of confirmed cases is among Black residents, who make up 4% of the state’s population.
Along with launching a site in Spanish, researchers have sought to recruit volunteers in the Yakima area by using the Center for Community Health Promotion satellite office in nearby Sunnyside for in-person visits, saving volunteers the over 100-mile journey to the Seattle office. Central Washington has been hit especially hard by COVID-19 and also has the highest percentages of Latino residents in the state, according to the state’s Office of Financial Management.
Additionally, Fred Hutch’s Office of Community Outreach & Engagement (OCOE) is partnering with leaders of color to spread the word about the study.
While Latino and Black people are overrepresented in the rates of coronavirus infections statewide, people of color are less likely to be represented in biomedical research studies than white participants, according to an Environmental Health Perspectives study. Cultural and language barriers, as well as a dearth of staff trained in cultural sensitivity, may deter participation, the study said.
A history of unethical practices in past studies may also make people of color hesitant to participate in current medical research, the study added. The Tuskegee Syphilis Study conducted by the national Public Health Service between the 1930s and 1970s, for instance, lured hundreds of Black men with the promise of free medical care. But participants with syphilis were denied treatment and not informed of their diagnosis so researchers could study the course of the untreated disease.
A recent Pew Research Center survey showed that Black adults are less likely to trust researchers: According to the study, 53% of Black respondents have a “mostly positive view of medical research scientists,” compared with 67% of Hispanic and 68% of white adults.
Rose Cano, a cultural mediator for Community House Calls program at Harborview Medical Center, said some members of the Latino community she serves have expressed hesitancy to participate in medical trials due to mistrust of the medical system and fear of “being used as guinea pigs.”
However, Fred Hutch says impacted communities have expressed enthusiasm in helping researchers better understand the virus. “One of the major differences is that this is a volunteer study,” said Tom Kim, media relations manager at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
CovidWatch participants are supplied with six months’ worth of nasal swabs for weekly tests that are done remotely, Kim added. Volunteers are also sent home with a Tasso device, which extracts blood samples for monthly testings.
Meanwhile, local community groups have conducted their own preliminary studies about the impact of COVID-19 on the Latino community.
Nonprofit El Centro de la Raza is surveying Latino residents throughout the state on a range of issues including health care and the impact of COVID-19 on their lives.
In April, the Latinx Health Board — an organization that advocates for the health and wellness of the state’s Latino community — conducted a Facebook survey to better understand Latino residents’ needs and concerns during the pandemic. Nearly half of the 128 respondents feared that they would contract COVID-19. About a fifth of the participants also expressed concern about access to culturally appropriate health care.