San Diego State University. Photo by Chris Stone

Three federal grants to San Diego State University researchers and community partners totaling more than $9 million are intended to expand the school’s role in fighting the spread of COVID-19, officials said Tuesday.

Focused on high-risk communities and schools, the grants will fund at- home COVID-19 testing to thousands of middle-school students, teachers, staff and their families. The grants will also support efforts to expand vaccinations, and explore individualized intervention strategies to prevent COVID-19 transmission in households.

The first grant, a two-year, $4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health given to the SDSU School of Public Health, is intended to bring regular COVID-19 testing into homes as an adjunct to on-site testing, both as a preventive measure and to collect data on whether such at-home testing works to avert COVID-19 transmission.

It expands an in-home COVID-19 testing program in partnership with Sweetwater Union High School District and other community partners started in July.

“Communities Fighting COVID! Returning Our Kids Back to School Safely” is part of an initiative from the NIH to return students to school through diagnostic testing. SDSU is one of 16 institutions across the county selected to participate.

Testing kits are being provided at no cost to volunteers at 11 middle schools in the Sweetwater district. Focusing on those who are unvaccinated or medically vulnerable, researchers expect to reach as many as one out of every five students and staff members per school.

If each participant adds a family member to the project, it would allow for regular testing of at least 4,000 unvaccinated volunteers districtwide, said Susan Kiene, SDSU professor of global health. The tests are appropriate for siblings as young as 2 years old. In addition to testing, the project will include other COVID-19 mitigation efforts, including school vaccination events.

The team has collaborated since March with the Sweetwater district to make on-site COVID testing available at several schools, encompassing predominantly underserved and Latino populations that have been heavily impacted by the pandemic.

In the second grant — $4.2 million from the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities — the School of Public Health and Family Health Centers of San Diego will test specially tailored intervention strategies to help stop the spread of COVID-19 in households where one family member already is infected.

Some 256 households will be involved — mostly in low-income, heavily Latino neighborhoods of South San Diego. Each household will be followed for six months, but researchers will check for any spread of COVID-19 at the six- week mark.

A core strategy will be motivational interviewing by community health workers from Family Health Centers with the goal of getting individuals to understand what needs to be done, to take action such as wearing PPE, isolating or keeping social distancing when possible. This approach will be tested in half the households while the other half receive more standard care as a control group.

Researchers say the project could provide an evidence base on how to prevent COVID-19 from spreading in household settings.

Additionally, the “Communities Fighting COVID! with Vaccines” team — which is intended to help encourage and increase vaccinations in underserved communities — has been awarded a $1 million one-year grant through the Health Resources and Services Administration.

That team will employ 10 community health workers who will connect with community members over the phone, in person, at businesses and houses of worship and other events. They will attempt to identify the psychological and logistical barriers to vaccination that exist among marginalized communities in San Diego County.

The community health workers will be educated on all aspects of the vaccines.

Additionally, they will help arrange child care and transportation when needed, host vaccination pop-up events, create and promote social media content and host opportunity drawings as incentives for those who get vaccinated through the program.

–City News Service

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