First underserved population identified for ASU to administer COVID-19 tests

Mark J. Scarp

Researchers at the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions have identified the first of 10 ZIP codes where during the next two years they will conduct 29,000 coronavirus tests among members of the most vulnerable populations in Arizona.

Testing will begin Nov. 7 in an area of southwest Phoenix whose ZIP Code is 85041. The others are still being determined.

ASU’s Southwest Interdisciplinary Research Center (SIRC) received a $4.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) National Institute of Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD) in September. ASU will provide saliva tests for the coronavirus to areas with high concentrations of American Indian, Latinx and African American residents, said Regents Professor Flavio Marsiglia of the ASU School of Social Work. NIH awarded 32 such grants nationwide.

Regents Professor Flavio Marsiglia
Regents Professor Flavio Marsiglia of the School of Social Work at Arizona State University.

Marsiglia, who is founder and director of the Global Center for Applied Health Research (GCAHR), and the principal investigator (PI) of the coronavirus project, said the SIRC Community Advisory Board (CAB) considered existing health inequalities in recommending inclusion of these communities in the testing efforts. Board members and scientific advisers are helping identify specific ZIP codes for 10 such communities based on existing data, he said.

“The main criteria for deployment of testing are documented lower access to testing and when tested community members have a much higher positivity rate than members of other communities,” Marsiglia said. “We are going to reach the most vulnerable and those left behind.”

SIRC Director Sabrina Oesterle, an associate professor in the School of Social Work, said her center recently completed a revision of its vision, mission and values that is in line with the goals of this NIH-funded project.

Associate Professor, Sabrina Oesterle
Associate Professor, Sabrina Oesterle, School of Social Work, Arizona State University.

“SIRC’s vision is health equity in the Southwest and beyond, and this project clearly addresses our mission to utilize partnerships, science and research to gain health equity among underserved populations in the Southwest,” Oesterle said. “This is the work we’re envisioning to do, making a real impact in communities as well.”

The project team includes three co-principal investigators: Hyunsung Oh, Susan Pepin and Tomás León, and many other team members from a variety of disciplines. Members of SIRC’s CAB also are actively involved.

Dulce Maria Ruelas, vice chair of the CAB, said she found “exhilarating” the process of contributing to and supporting SIRC’s efforts to provide services to Arizona’s underserved communities.

“SIRC recognizes that there are disparities beyond the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Ruelas, an assistant professor of public health in the College of Nursing and Healthcare Professions at Grand Canyon University. “This grant will address some health equity issues as specific interventions will be put in place to impact our communities for years to come.”

At the time the proposal for the grant was filed, Arizona had one of the nation’s highest COVID-19 positive test rates, with disproportionately higher rates among the state’s Latinx, American Indian and African American communities.

The ASU team will work to increase access to testing in these areas, called “testing deserts,” by identifying and decreasing barriers to testing in Arizona’s vulnerable and underserved communities. The team will use an approach that “empowers local communities, meets community members where they are, is data driven and creates the infrastructure for continued community-driven delivery of care,” Marsiglia and Oesterle said.

As part of the effort, the Phoenix-based Equality Health Foundation will convene a COVID-19 Coalition of Communities of Color Partners (CCCCP) from across Arizona, while the ASU Biodesign Clinical Testing Laboratory (ABCTL) will provide the saliva-based tests it developed for the coronavirus. The ASU team aims to deliver test results within 72 hours and offer referrals to health care providers for anyone who tests positive, then follow up on those referrals.

Patricia Hibbeler, chief executive officer of the Phoenix Indian Center Inc. and chair of the CAB, said she is thankful for ASU, Watts College and the community partners that collaborated to bring the project to Arizona.

“This funding is positioned to change the trajectory of COVID-19 through its impact on communities with disproportionate rates,” Hibbeler said. “The partnerships in this work are vast and truly demonstrate the adage that ‘it takes a village to heal a community.’” 

This story includes earlier reporting by ASU Now reporter Mary Beth Faller.