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New Initiatives Awarded $4.7 Million to Encourage COVID-19 Testing in Underserved Communities and Schools

Read Time: 4 minutes
Doug Dollemore

The press release below was prepared by University of Utah Health. View the original here.

Woman standing in her kitchen and inserting a long cotton swab up her nose as part of a COVID-19 test
SCALE-UP II seeks to expand the availability of home testing kits for COVID-19 among Hispanics and other underserved populations in Utah. Photo credit: Getty Images

More than two years after the first COVID-19 cases were reported in Utah, demographically underrepresented populations in the state continue to test positive for the disease at greater rates than other racial or ethnic groups.

As of early April, about 35% of Hispanics, 34% of Native Americans, and 30% of Blacks had tested positive for COVID-19 compared to about 25% of Whites and Asian Americans. Overall, infection rates are 20% to 40% higher among non-Whites. In addition, less than 60% of the state’s Hispanic population is fully vaccinated against the disease, far lower than any other racial or ethnic group.

In their quest to overcome these health disparities, University of Utah Health scientists are launching SCALE-UP II and SCALE-UP Counts, a pair of initiatives designed to increase COVID-19 testing and vaccination among rural and underserved populations. Combined, the two initiatives are supported by $4.7 million from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

"Testing is still important because we want people to be able to be with their families and live in their communities safely."

Although SCALE-UP II and SCALE-UP Counts are starting when COVID-19 appears to be ebbing––with the number of confirmed cases and hospitalizations declining in the state––the researchers say continued testing for the disease is vital, particularly among these at-risk communities.

"Testing is still important because we want people to be able to be with their families and live in their communities safely," says Yelena Wu, PhD, a Huntsman Cancer Institute researcher leading SCALE-UP Counts and an associate professor of dermatology at U of U Health. "From a COVID standpoint, testing is the only way of knowing that you are truly safe."

Testing is also an early warning system that can alert health care providers if COVID-19 cases are on the rise again, says Wu, who is also an investigator at the Huntsman Cancer Institute.

SCALE-UP II builds on SCALE-UP Utah, an initiative begun in 2020 that aimed to increase the acceptance, reach, uptake, and sustainability of COVID-19 screening and testing among underserved groups.

The new initiative, supported by a $2.3 million NIH grant, will target the same population, and utilize many of the same outreach techniques as SCALE-UP Utah. However, it will also use a chatbot to identify hesitancy or other barriers to testing and provide tailored information to address individual needs. A chatbot is software that simulates human-like conversation with users over text.

SCALE-UP II will add other approaches such as mailing in-home testing kits to participants and providing phone calls from community health workers to help address hesitancy and accessibility problems among participants.

The effort will be carried out in partnership with 11 community health systems across the state that operate 38 primary care clinics serving more than 112,000 patients––most of whom live in rural and underserved communities. It is led by Guilherme Del Fiol, MD, PhD, of U of U Health and David Wetter, PhD, of U of U Health and Huntsman Cancer Institute.

SCALE-UP Counts focuses on helping schools in Utah manage and prevent transmission of COVID-19 among students, staff, and families. Volunteers receive a text message letting them know about at-home tests available at their school. Some within each school receive ongoing text messaging that instructs them how to test if they have symptoms or have been exposed to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. If necessary, follow-up phone calls are made.

The initiative, supported by a $2.4 million NIH grant, is currently deployed in six schools in the Granite School District, the third-largest in the state with more than 60,000 students. The researchers plan to have SCALE-UP Counts available in at least five more schools at the start of the next school year.

Ultimately, the goal is to identify individuals who test positive so they can isolate themselves and prevent further spread of the virus. If that happens, Wu says, more children and staff can stay in school and school can hopefully remain open.

SCALE-UP II and SCALE-UP Counts both take advantage of pre-existing, evidence-based interventions developed by the team at the Center for Health Outcomes and Population Equity (HOPE), led by Wetter at Huntsman Cancer Institute and the Center for Clinical and Transitional Science at U of U Health.

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Heather Simonsen
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Huntsman Cancer Institute
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About Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah

Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah is the National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center for Utah, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, and Wyoming. With a legacy of innovative cancer research, groundbreaking discoveries, and world-class patient care, we are transforming the way cancer is understood, prevented, diagnosed, treated, and survived. Huntsman Cancer Institute focuses on delivering the highest standard of care and the most advanced treatments, ensuring world-class cancer care is available to all communities in the area we serve. We have more than 300 open clinical trials and 250 research teams studying cancer at any given time. More genes for inherited cancers have been discovered at Huntsman Cancer Institute than at any other cancer center. Our scientists are world-renowned for understanding how cancer begins and using that knowledge to develop innovative approaches to treat each patient’s unique disease. Huntsman Cancer Institute was founded by Jon M. and Karen Huntsman.

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