Where COVID-19 Hits Hardest

illustration of ethnic, diverse population wearing a face mask.

UB researchers are attempting to mitigate the severe impact of COVID-19 on underserved populations through engagement and education.

Health disparities in underserved communities across the U.S. preceded COVID-19. But the emergence of the novel coronavirus—and its devastating effects on these communities—has thrown the issue into sharp relief.

Now a team of University at Buffalo medical researchers is working to mitigate this inequity in Western New York as it relates directly to COVID-19.

Collaboration is crucial

The project goal, explains Oscar G. Gómez-Duarte, associate professor of pediatrics in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the University at Buffalo and division chief of Infectious Diseases, is to assess the community’s risk of poor outcomes to the virus by evaluating the “social determinants of health, underlying health conditions and other demographic factors”—and then to alter those outcomes through community interventions.

Led by Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine Roberto O. Diaz Del Carpio, the UB research team, in partnership with local clinics and community health workers, will educate the community on such things as implementing prevention measures, addressing comorbidities and accessing health care without insurance.

This “community-based response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” is key, says Diaz Del Carpio, as studies have shown that when educational interventions are delivered by community health workers, it can improve health while reducing costly hospitalizations and readmissions.

Also investigating immunity

The research team is simultaneously investigating how immunity to COVID-19 develops by studying those who have recovered. Samples from adults and children who have been infected have been collected and processed in the lab of Mark D. Hicar, associate professor of pediatrics and a co-collaborator on the study.

Researchers will be looking at active immunity—achieved when a person’s immune system produces antibodies in response to an infection or vaccine—as well as passive immunity, which results when antibodies are introduced from another person. They will also be studying the widely varying immune responses to this virus, from those who manifest no symptoms to those who experience dangerous “cytokine storms.” Finally, they will conduct genetic studies aimed at identifying markers associated with protection against coronavirus infection in the general population.