Study Tackles Barriers to COVID-19 Testing in Black Communities

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Pennington Biomedical, HealthyBR Part of Nationwide Effort to Fill Gaps in Care
Released: Monday, November 30, 2020

BATON ROUGE, Louisiana – Pennington Biomedical Research Center and the Louisiana Clinical and Translational Science Center (LA CaTS) secured a major research grant to help in the fight against COVID-19 in Louisiana. Pennington and LA CaTS scientists were selected to participate in Operation Warp Speed, the White House initiative on COVID-19. The research will focus on COVID-19 testing in Louisiana’s Black communities, which have been hit hard by the virus.


“African Americans make up one-third of the state’s population, but they account for nearly half of Louisiana’s COVID-related deaths. We must do a better job of testing in underserved Black communities,” said Pennington Biomedical Executive Director John Kirwan, Ph.D. “Our plan is to partner with community members to identify the barriers to testing and to find the best strategies to get more people tested.”

“Getting these answers is urgent because we’re drawing ever closer to federal approval for COVID-19 vaccines and their distribution. This study and its results will inform the equitable deployment of those vaccines and treatments in these communities,” Dr. Kirwan added.

Researchers will use a multimedia campaign to promote and conduct rapid testing at clinics, churches, schools and community centers. Researchers plan to collect samples from 2,000 adults, along with information on their age, sex, race, Body Mass Index, employment, and socioeconomic status. The data will help identify how those factors relate to testing rates.

The project is funded by a $1.8 million award under a program overseen by Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health. A part of the Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics (RADx) initiative, the RADx Underserved Populations (RADx-UP) program will support 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.

Pennington Biomedical is one of 55 institutions across the country that have been entrusted to implement this work. The RADx-UP program supports projects that will rapidly implement COVID-19 testing strategies in populations disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

Pennington Biomedical and the Louisiana Clinical & Translational Science Center (LA CaTS), a partnership of the state’s leading research institutions, will head the project. The HealthyBR initiative, a collaboration among Baton Rouge’s 73 top health and human services organizations and hospital systems, is a critical community partner. Pennington Biomedical’s work with HealthyBR and its members’ strong community presence and connections are expected to help achieve the project’s aims.


“Pennington Biomedical has demonstrated its commitment to helping Louisiana’s communities through three decades of research into chronic diseases,” said Associate Executive Director of Population and Public Health Sciences Peter Katzmarzyk, Ph.D. “For example, Pennington Biomedical helped low-income patients with obesity lose weight by putting health coaches into primary care clinics, a setting where the patients were more comfortable.”

“It’s possible that more people may undergo COVID-19 testing if tests are available in more relaxed settings, such as churches, schools, and community centers,” Dr. Katzmarzyk said. “We’re going to ask members of our Black communities what approaches they think would be best.“

“Since March, communities across the globe have worked together to combat the coronavirus pandemic – people of all backgrounds have experienced this pandemic. While we have all experienced COVID-19’s repercussions, data has shown us that the coronavirus is not just a health crisis, but a crisis that exposes the disparities of access that exist across many demographics in our city, parish, state and country,” said Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome. “Pennington Biomedical’s effort to increase testing in Louisiana’s Black communities is vitally important in our effort to understand the spread of the coronavirus, as well as the role disparities play in its impact on our residents.”

Assistance from Louisiana’s Congressional delegation members U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy and U.S. Rep. Garrett Graves, Gov. John Bel Edwards and Louisiana Health Secretary Courtney Phillips was supportive in Pennington Biomedical’s successful effort to secure this funding for the state. The RADx-UP program supports projects that will rapidly implement COVID-19 testing strategies in populations disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

This research is supported by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health under award number U54 GM104940-05S3. 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 LSU's Pennington Biomedical Research Center

LSU's Pennington Biomedical Research Center is at the forefront of medical discovery as it relates to understanding the triggers of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and dementia. The center conducts basic, clinical and population research, and is affiliated with Louisiana State University. The research enterprise at Pennington Biomedical includes over 450 employees within a network of 40 clinics and research laboratories, and 13 highly specialized core service facilities. Its scientists and physician/scientists are supported by research trainees, lab technicians, nurses, dietitians and other support personnel. Pennington Biomedical is located in state-of-the-art research facilities on a 222-acre campus in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.