Physician-Scientist Leads NIH Program to Tackle COVID-19 Health Disparities in Arizona

Dr. Sairam Parthasarathy sits at a desk with a male colleague and points at a computer screen.
Through trust, education and inclusion, Dr. Sairam Parthasarathy will work to combat the health inequities of American Indian, African American and Hispanic/Latinx people as one of 11 principal investigators for the National Institutes of Health Community Engagement Alliance Against COVID-19 Disparities.
Brittany Uhlorn, BIO5 Institute

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Indian, African American and Hispanic/Latinx people are disproportionately affected by COVID-19, experiencing higher rates of illness, hospitalization and death. These racial and ethnic health disparities are greatest across 11 states including Arizona, calling for immediate action. 

Dr. Sairam Parthasarathy, professor of medicine and chief of the Division of Pulmonary, Allergy, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine in the UArizona College of Medicine – Tucson, was recently named one of 11 lead investigators for the National Institutes of Health Community Engagement Alliance (CEAL) Against COVID-19 Disparities. The CEAL program aims to build trust, increase awareness and education, and promote clinical trial inclusion among these vulnerable populations to ultimately reduce their disease burden. 

I spoke with Dr. Parthasarathy, a member of the BIO5 Institute, about his plans for Arizona’s CEAL program and why it’s essential to promote health equity during this pandemic and for years to come. 

Much of your work as a clinician revolves around pulmonary critical care and sleep medicine – why did you take interest in leading the Arizona CEAL program to combat COVID-19 disparities?

As a clinician and researcher, I am personally witnessing greater affliction from COVID-19 in health disparate populations in Southern Arizona. I consider it an “error of omission” to not jump into action and address the COVID-19 related health disparities. Moreover, my prior and ongoing work involved peer-intervention and information technology to help support treatment adherence is with individuals in lower income households. 

We are hoping to leverage a statewide team that involves ASU, NAU, Mayo Clinic – Scottsdale and over 20 community-based organizations to reach out to various communities that are “at risk” for developing COVID and help reduce their chances of contracting this terrible infection. Our study is also meant to improve their participation in clinical trials.
Why are there such large racial disparities in COVID-19? Is there a group that’s most affected in Arizona? 

There are numerous factors responsible for the observed health disparities. These disparities are due to a multitude of social determinants of disease, including lack of access to care and to culturally appropriate information, and historical trauma-based mistrust in minority populations. Ending the COVID-19 pandemic will require rapid development and implementation of effective strategies to enhance awareness and uptake of preventive measures and improve inclusion of communities disproportionally affected by COVID-19 in research, including intervention studies, and clinical trials of vaccines and therapeutics. 

Arizona is one of the hardest hit states with one of the highest COVID-19 positivity test rates for adults (19%) as well as pediatric cases in the U.S., and the case rates and deaths are disproportionally higher among Arizona’s Latino, American Indian, and African American communities. The pandemic has exposed that Latinos, American Indians, African Americans and individuals in lower income households are more likely to develop COVID, be hospitalized, or even die due to COVID-19. 

Why are you passionate about reducing or eliminating these inequities?

I was – and continue to be – distressed by the existent social inequities and injustices that existed prior to the pandemic. This pandemic has exposed and widened the previously existing health disparities and as such has appealed to me (and others) as a call for immediate and full action. I believe that the next wave of this pandemic poses an existential threat to us and poses an even greater threat to some of our vulnerable communities. We should all ask ourselves as to what we should be doing to promote health equity during the pandemic and beyond. I hope readers share my viewpoint and continue to commit their time and effort to address this pandemic in their own way.

What are your overarching goals for the Arizona COVID-19 CEAL program? 

The CEAL program is a $12 million investment from NIH spanning 11 U.S. states over a one-year period. These states were targeted because of marked health disparities that were exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has exposed that Latinos, American Indians, African Americans and individuals in lower income households are more likely to develop COVID-19, be hospitalized, and even die from COVID-19. Ending such differences requires immediate action. 

We will form a statewide group with the main goal to talk to such affected communities and create a trustworthy plan to reduce the devastation caused by COVID-19 in such communities. 

The overarching goals are: to conduct urgent community-engaged research and outreach focused on COVID-19 awareness and education to address misinformation and mistrust; and to promote and facilitate inclusion of diverse racial and ethnic populations in clinical trials (prevention, vaccine, therapeutics), reflective of the populations disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

What will this program entail? How do you plan to connect with and build trust among the underserved populations? 

Outreach will involve a multi-model approach that includes a digital platform and community health workforce that harnesses existing strong community engagement and collaboration ties that have been developed over a decade, as well as through new partnerships. 

What impact do you hope this program will have on the most vulnerable populations in our state?

We hope to raise awareness, improve adherence to prevention strategies (such as mask wearing and vaccination), and increase representation of Hispanics, American Indians, and African Americans into clinical research trials so that the research yielded is more representative of the general U.S. population and therefore generalizable to all communities in the U.S. We also hope that Arizona residents will embrace the opportunity to receive the COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available so that we can protect our vulnerable and all other communities from this devastating disease.

Dr. Parthasarathy encourages the community to follow his team’s efforts on social media, disseminate accurate information and encourage others to participate in the COVID-19 Prevention Network volunteer screening registry.