WSU Insider
Oct. 12, 2020

SPOKANE, Wash. –  American Indian and Native Alaskan populations have been hit hard by the pandemic—exactly how hard, no one can say for sure, since there is a lack of information and testing in these communities.

A new project led by Dr. Dedra Buchwald, a physician and professor with WSU’s Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine, has received a $4.4 million National Institutes of Health grant to help address that knowledge gap and bring resources to curb the COVID-19 crisis within these populations.

“Many things come together to make American Indians and Native Alaskans particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, and at the same time, make them hesitant to participate in efforts to get tested and get vaccinated,” said Buchwald, who is also the director of the Institute for Research and Education to Advance Community Health or IREACH.

This grant is one of four recently received by College of Medicine researchers to help deal with aspects of COVID-19 crisis. The others include:

  • A competitive effort headed up by April Needham of the University Center for Innovation will challenge entrepreneurs from Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho to come up with ideas to improve the personal protective equipment (PPE) manufacturing process. The project received a $300,000 grant from the federal CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) act and administered by the Economic Development Administration.
  • A project led by Dr. Patrik Johansson, an associate professor in the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine’s Department of Medical Education and Clinical Sciences and an IREACH faculty member, received nearly $100,000 from Empire Health Foundation to study the impact of COVID-19 pandemic on the well-being of rural and American Indian cancer patients in Washington state.
  • Ofer Amram, assistant professor in nutrition and exercise physiology, will lead an effort to evaluate the impact of deferred preventative care for cancer in the era of COVID-19. This project also received a grant from Empire Health Foundation of nearly $100,000.
Dedra Buchwald portrait in white lab coat
Dedra Buchwald

The National Institutes of Health grant is intended to help address health disparities among underserved and especially vulnerable Native populations in urban settings. An estimated 71% of American Indians and Native Alaskans live in urban areas. Buchwald said these populations have many risk factors, including a high prevalence of diabetes, hypertension, obesity, multi-generational households and poor living conditions. Many also struggle with poverty and limited access to quality health care and education.

This is complicated by a distrust in the federal government and health care systems, given the long history of atrocities committed against Native peoples, such as the deliberate dispersal of blankets laden with smallpox and sterilization of Native women without true consent.

In the new project, called COVID-19 Epidemiology, Research, Testing and Services or CONCERTS, researchers from WSU, University of Colorado and University of Minnesota will partner with Urban Indian Health Programs in six major cities with large Native populations: Albuquerque, N.M.; Anchorage, Ala.; Denver, Minneapolis, Seattle and Wichita, Kan.

The partners will work to understand who has been tested already and what challenges exist to getting people tested and ultimately vaccinated. The grant will also fund new resources for each site to help promote testing depending on their locally determined needs. Some sites might need PPE or testing kits while others may want to establish a testing drive-through site or send out case workers or COVID navigators to make contact with individuals.

Most of the people working on this project at the health programs will be from the tribal communities they serve, Buchwald said.

“American Indian and Native Alaskan people are more knowledgeable about what is going on in their communities than outside researchers, and we want to make sure that we have good trusting relationships,” she said. “Our partners are really key to encouraging more people to get tested, and in the future, vaccinated, if determined to be desirable.”