Rutgers Awarded $5 Million Grant from NIH to Improve Access to COVID-19 Testing within Underserved and Vulnerable Communities

The award is part of the RADx Underserved Populations (RADx-UP) program in the Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics (RADx) initiative

PISCATAWAY, NJ – A $5 million National Institutes of Health grant awarded to the New Jersey Alliance for Clinical and Translational Science (NJ ACTS) will launch outreach campaigns and expand access to COVID-19 testing for underserved and vulnerable communities in New Jersey.

Called the New Jersey Healthcare Essential WoRker Outreach and Education Study – Testing Overlooked Occupations, or NJ HEROES TOO, the Rutgers-led study is funded under the NIH’s Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics (RADx) initiative, RADx Underserved Populations (RADx-UP) program. The program supports research that aims to better understand COVID-19 testing patterns among underserved and vulnerable populations; strengthen the data on disparities in infection rates, disease progression and outcomes; and develop strategies to reduce the disparities in COVID-19 testing.

NJ HEROES TOO focuses on the Black and Latinx communities disproportionately affected by COVID-19 in places where Rutgers academic medical centers are deeply rooted. NJ ACTS partnered with community and healthcare organizations in Essex, Middlesex, Passaic and Union counties to co-design this study.

Medical sociologist and lead principal investigator for the study, Shawna Hudson, PhD,  who is also co-director of Community Engagement for the NJ ACTS, reflected that “much of the public attention with ‘frontline healthcare heroes’ has been focused on doctors and nurses. NJ HEROES TOO focuses on vulnerable health care workers and their families, including home health and personal care aids, maintenance staff, housekeeping, and hospital security, groups which are largely Black and Latinx and have concerns about exposing their families, friends and communities.”

“This is an incredible opportunity to improve COVID-19 awareness in vulnerable individuals across NJ. It’s a game changer,” said Reynold Panettieri, director of NJ ACTS.

Rutgers is one of 32 institutions that received an NIH award through the RADx-UP program to support projects designed to rapidly implement COVID-19 testing strategies in populations disproportionately affected by the pandemic. These groups include African Americans, American Indians/Alaskan Natives, Latinos/Latinas, Native Hawaiians, older adults, pregnant women, and those who are homeless or incarcerated.

“It is critical that all Americans have access to rapid, accurate diagnostics for COVID-19, especially underserved and vulnerable populations who are bearing the brunt of this disease,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins, MD, PhD. “The RADx-UP program will help us better understand and alleviate the barriers to testing for those most vulnerable and reduce the burden of this disease.”

Rutgers researchers are also working with community organizations to understand the best way of communicating the importance of being tested and facilitating COVID-19 at-home saliva self-testing.

“We need to recognize the disparities for Black and Latinx communities. To help address inequities, it is critical that we use an on-the-ground approach by partnering with community members whom they know and trust. We need to ensure that the people and families who need testing and treatment are detected earlier and get help earlier,” added Manny Jiménez, MD, MS, a study principal investigator and director of developmental and behavioral pediatrics education at the Boggs Center on Developmental Disabilities at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.

NJ HEROES TOO will be developed in two-phases. The first phase includes an evaluation process involving stakeholder interviews, evidence-based content review, pilot testing, and stakeholder input to inform design and implementation of outreach strategies. The second phase will examine the impact of the study’s outreach strategies on healthcare workers, their family members and the broader community.

The study brings together researchers, health care and community partners in a collaborative effort, and is led by the following six principal investigators:

  • Shawna Hudson, PhD, Professor of Family Medicine and Community Health and Director of the Center Advancing Research and Evaluation for Patient-Centered Care (CARE-PC) at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and Co-Director of Community Engagement for the NJ Alliance for Clinical and Translational Science (NJ ACTS);
  • Reynold Panettieri, MD, Director of Rutgers Institute for Translational Medicine and Science and Director for the New Jersey Alliance for Clinical and Translational Science (NJ ACTS);
  • Emily Barrett, PhD, Associate Professor of Biostatistics and Epidemiology, Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute, Rutgers School of Public Health;
  • Martin Blaser, MD, Director of the Rutgers Center for Advanced Biotechnology & Medicine;
  • Diane Hill, PhD, Assistant Chancellor, University Community Partnerships; Assistant Professor, Rutgers School of Public Affairs and Administration;
  • Manny Jiménez, MD, MS, FAAP, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics and Family Medicine and Community Health, Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.

Healthcare and community organizations participating include: Parker Health Group; Visiting Nurse Association Health Group;  ASPIRA Association; Central Jersey Family Health Consortium, Inc.; East Orange Senior Volunteer Corporation; Health Coalition of Passaic County; Mobile Family Success Center; New Brunswick Area Branch NAACP; New Brunswick Tomorrow; New Hope NOW Community Development Corporation; Partnership for Maternal and Child Health of Northern New Jersey; Program for Parents; Puerto Rican Action Board (PRAB); The Bridge; Township of Hillside Senior Recreation Center; United Way of Greater Union County; and Urban League of Union County.

Please Note: Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Center For Advancing Translational Sciences of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number UL1TR003017. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

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About the Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics (RADxSM) initiative: The RADx initiative was launched on April 29, 2020, to speed innovation in the development, commercialization, and implementation of technologies for COVID-19 testing. The initiative has four programs: RADx Tech, RADx Advanced Technology Platforms, RADx Underserved Populations and RADx Radical. It leverages the existing NIH Point-of-Care Technology Research Network. The RADx initiative partners with federal agencies, including the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Health, Department of Defense, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, and U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Learn more about the RADx initiative and its programs: