Nearly $1M to boost COVID-19 testing

Posted on Nov 30 2020

A newly awarded federal grant of nearly $1 million will help increase COVID-19 testing among Pacific Islanders in Guam and Hawaii and seek to reveal infection patterns in those populations.

The University of Guam is one of several partners in the “Puipuia le Ola” project of the University of Hawaii, funded by the National Institutes of Health, that will be developing and evaluating culturally-tailored community engagement strategies to be disseminated in the native languages of Pacific Islander communities.  

“There is a disparity in how COVID-19 is impacting Pacific Islanders, and this grant allows community-based organizations to specifically focus on this group and ultimately reduce the infection and mortality rate through health education and outreach,” said Rachael Leon Guerrero, vice provost of research and sponsored programs at the University of Guam.  

Pacific Islanders are defined in the project as indigenous people having origins in Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau.  

In Guam, residents originating from other islands in Micronesia compose 7% of the island’s population but account for 14% of COVID-19 cases. In Hawaii, Pacific Islanders compose 4% of the state’s population but account for nearly 30% of COVID-19 cases and 20% of all COVID-19 deaths.  

According to the John A. Burns School of Medicine at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa, Pacific Islanders commonly suffer from certain medical comorbidities known to increase the risk of having severe COVID-19 symptoms. They also tend to have poor access to health care, lack adequate health insurance, live in multi-generational or overcrowded housing, and work in service jobs that increase their daily risk of exposure.  

The work in Guam will be led by Teofila P. Cruz, a postdoctoral researcher with the Research Corporation of the University of Guam, a registered nurse, and an adjunct faculty member within UOG’s School of Health.  

The grant is part of the National Institutes of Health’s Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics initiative, which is meant to accelerate innovative technologies for COVID-19 testing. A major component of the initiative is the RADx Underserved Populations program, which is focused on identifying factors associated with the disproportionately high infection rates and poor outcomes of COVID-19 in underserved and vulnerable populations and reducing related morbidity and mortality rates. 

“This will be one of the first NIH-supported projects designed to sustain efforts not only for COVID-19 mitigation among Pacific Islanders, but for achieving the capacity and collective partnerships among Pacific Islanders to reach long-term goals of reducing long-standing health disparities,” said Dr. Richard Yanagihara, a professor at the John A. Burns School of Medicine and one of the principal investigators, along with UH Mānoa’s Angela Sy, Tina Tauasosi-Posiulai, and Dr. Wei-Kung Wang. 

Lessons learned from this project will inform similar efforts for Pacific Islander communities and other underserved and vulnerable populations across the nation while expanding the reach of COVID-19 testing efforts, and subsequent COVID-19 vaccination campaigns in Hawaii and Guam.  

The project is titled “Puipuia le Ola,” which is Samoan for “protecting life.” (PR)

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