University of Miami and United Way Working Together to Curb Spread of Highly Contagious COVID-19 Variant

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The focus is on reaching and educating the unvaccinated in underserved communities

United Way Vaccine
Health care workers process patients to receive COVID-19 vaccines.

As the highly transmissible Delta variant of COVID-19 continues to spread across the nation, the University of Miami Leonard M. Miller School of Medicine is leading the effort to reach underserved and vulnerable populations in South Florida by distributing vaccines and providing accurate information on vaccine efficacy and safety.

Although vaccines are now readily available, unlike earlier in the pandemic, vaccine hesitancy and other obstacles continue to put medically underserved communities and communities of color at higher risk of contracting this highly virulent strain.

“The pandemic exposed and magnified the inordinate burden of chronic diseases in socioeconomically disenfranchised groups,” said Sonjia Kenya, Ed.D., M.S., M.A., associate professor of medicine and public health at the Miller School, who is leading the project. “We are dedicated to removing barriers to health care for our community members to ensure they all live in good health and with better outcomes.”

Working jointly with the United Way Miami and community partners, the Miller School has stepped up outreach efforts to infiltrate these pockets of unvaccinated residents. This includes rallying the support of trusted members of the community, overcoming transportation issues by bringing vaccines to the people, and, most importantly, addressing – and dispelling – the misinformation that spurs vaccine hesitancy.

“This virus is relentless,” said Olveen Carrasquillo, M.D., M.P.H., co-director of the Miami CTSI's Community and Stakeholder Engagement & Hub Capacity programs, chief of the Division of General Internal Medicine at the Miller School, and a national expert in minority health and health disparities. “When it sees a formidable weakness, it seizes on it. In this case, the unvaccinated.”

He added, “With the highly contagious Delta variant now the dominant strain, we are working to increase vaccination rates, particularly in our medically underserved communities and communities of color because they are at a higher risk for contracting COVID-19 due to the types of jobs they have, how they get to work, and how they live, often in crowded conditions.”

Since early July, UM has been leading a broad outreach and education initiative focused in the areas of Homestead, Florida City, and adjacent semi-rural areas of southern Miami-Dade County, as well as the Upper Keys, working with several community partners. Vaccine hesitancy is especially high among individuals whose immigration status might make them reluctant to engage with the formal healthcare system. Homestead’s population is 66% Hispanic and 21% Black or African American; about one-quarter of its residents lack health insurance.

Key elements of the initiative include a campaign to overcome vaccine hesitancy, as well as monitoring and addressing COVID-related health issues and the impact of vaccination in the long-term. The project also aims to ensure that community members are aware of COVID-19 risks and scientifically proven methods to prevent the spread of the virus.

As per Dr. Carrasquillo: “The age group with the lowest vaccination rates are adolescents and young adults. Thus, they are a major target of our outreach activities. In addition to ongoing in-person community events we have also developed a robust social media campaign to reach this group.”

Funding for the UM-United Way initiative is made possible by $450,000 in grants from the Ocean Reef Community Foundation’s COVID-19 Relief Fund, which is focused on the specific high-need area being served by the project. The foundation fostered the collaboration between UM and the United Way, funding proposals from both organizations and encouraging them to work together to maximize impact.

United Way Miami, drawing from its keen understanding of access gaps for underserved groups throughout the Miami-Dade community, has brought together local partners – including Uber – to address transportation barriers and supported incentives that are being used as a tool to overcome vaccine hesitancy.

“Our partnership with University of Miami is built on a set of shared values of equity ensuring everyone the opportunity to lead healthy lives,” said Maria C. Alonso, president and CEO of the United Way Miami. “This initiative allows us to leverage our expertise and experience in mobilizing trusted community partners to remove health disparities aggravated by the pandemic and intensified by misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines.”

The funding is allowing UM to amplify the work of an existing statewide National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded initiative, known as the Community-Engaged Research Alliance Against COVID-19 in Disproportionately Affected Communities (CEAL). Created in September 2020, CEAL addresses disparities in COVID-19 infection and impact, countering misinformation about the virus and vaccine, and understanding barriers to care to generate solutions that eliminate them.

“The Miller School of Medicine is committed to understanding the factors that limit access to health care and keep our diverse communities in the debilitating cycles of chronic illness magnified by socioeconomic vulnerability,” said Dr. Carrasquillo, a professor of medicine and public health sciences at the Miller School who has spent more than 25 years researching methods to increase access to health care among minority populations. “The Ocean Reef Community Foundation support is helping us translate our community-based research and remove barriers to quality health care to build healthier communities.”

“We could not ask for stronger partners than University of Miami and United Way Miami to bring the public health expertise and support required to effectively combat the pandemic straight to the heart of our community,” said Yurianna Mikolay, executive director of the Ocean Reef Community Foundation. “Our partners have already made powerful inroads into managing the crisis, delivering health care and health education to those in need. We are confident their work will make a meaningful difference for families and overall recovery in the communities we serve.”

The UM-United Way initiative is mobilizing trained community health workers and trusted members of the community who can provide care and accurate information in a culturally relevant manner.

“Thanks to fantastic community efforts like these, we have been able to vaccinate nearly 90% of residents 12+ in Miami-Dade County – the best vaccination rate in the state,” said Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava. “I am extremely grateful for the work that University of Miami and United Way are doing together with other partners to reach underserved communities and think outside the box to eliminate barriers to access vaccines. I personally attended a clinic for farmworkers in Homestead as part of UM’s outreach efforts and I’m proud our county has academic institutions and nonprofit organizations working side-by-side with local government to empower residents with health information and access. Also, we could not accomplish as much as we have without private philanthropy, and we especially thank the Ocean Reef Foundation for their generous support of this initiative.”