LAWRENCE — As the omicron variant of COVID-19 rages across the United States and around the world, testing and vaccination are as crucial as ever. Researchers at the University of Kansas and KU Medical Center have received a $2.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop and refine an intervention to boost testing and vaccination — and knowledge about both — among one of the country’s most vulnerable populations, women leaving incarceration.
The project was funded by the NIH’s RADx-UP (underserved populations) initiative. The intervention will be tailored to address the attitudes, knowledge and beliefs of women leaving jail and transitioning back to society, and it will be delivered via infrastructure the team has already developed as part of a previous NIH award. This approach will allow for rapid development and delivery of information tailored for this specific underserved population that can also be scaled up for broader use across the country.
“When we applied for the grant, we were in an environment in which we were strongly encouraging vaccination. At the time we wrote the grant, we were seeing about 50 percent vaccinated in this population, and the percentage in the larger United States was about the same,” said Megha Ramaswamy, professor of population health at KU Medical Center and a co-principal investigator of the grant. “We thought testing would continue to be important, and with the emergence of the omicron variant, it is showing to be very much so. Screening is the bread and butter of the public health world.”
The research team is working with cohorts of women leaving incarceration in Kansas City, Kansas, and Kansas City, Missouri; Oakland, California; and Birmingham, Alabama. They are also collaborating with local partners at each location who are facilitating work with the more than 500 women in the cohort and area correctional facilities and community organizations.
Previously, Ramaswamy and colleagues have developed a program called SHE Women that delivers online education modules on the topics of sexually transmitted infections, cervical cancer, reproductive planning and breast health. The co-principal investigator of the current award, Mugur Geana, is an associate professor of strategic communication at KU and is also director of KU’s Center for Excellence in Health Communications to Underserved Populations, a partner in the project.
That groundwork will enable the researchers to use the experience and partnerships they’ve developed to deliver education to boost knowledge about testing and vaccination for this specific population in a timely fashion but also set the stage for expansion beyond the sites in Kansas City, Oakland and Birmingham.
“This could easily become a nationwide resource. One of the advantages of the system is it is extremely flexible, scalable and easy to update, which is of utmost importance with evolving topics such as the COVID-19 pandemic ” Geana said. “It can easily be adapted for other underserved populations as well. The content is modular and can be directed specifically to various audiences.”
In phase one of the project, researchers are gathering information about the population’s knowledge about COVID-19, testing and vaccination. The team has published previous research about women leaving incarceration’s vaccine hesitancy, knowledge of screening and also found the approximately 1.3 million women under criminal legal supervision face a number of structural challenges upon transition including poverty, complex trauma, substance abuse and mental health problem histories, lack of access to housing and employment, and mistrust of government and government-backed health interventions. The population also faces the challenges of vaccine misinformation spread via social media plaguing the wider U.S. population, researchers said.
Based on previous findings and newly gathered information, the team will develop and refine an intervention that addresses concerns, dispels misinformation and enhances knowledge about the importance of screening and safety and efficacy of vaccines.
If new virus variants emerge or the pandemic enters previously unseen phases, the intervention can be adjusted accordingly.
“This is not a one-time thing. It’s a process that can be dynamically adapted at any time,” Geana said.
The project’s key component is critical health literacy, meeting this underserved population of women where they are, addressing their unique questions and concerns, and engaging community partners as members of the research and development team.
“There is no time to waste,” Ramaswamy said. “Timing is critical, and we’ll be pushing this out very fast. Testing is essential in curbing the current wave of infections with the omicron variant of the coronavirus, and we hope that our intervention will contribute to emphasize its importance and value to this underserved population.”
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