SPOTLIGHT | June 16, 2021

Longstanding Histories

COVID-19 hit four cities in Michigan – Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, and Ann Arbor – especially hard. 

To respond, community physicians and university researchers quickly came together to share COVID-19 resources. This included distributing facts about the coronavirus, as well as educating the community about preventive tools such as social distancing, masking, handwashing, and most recently, getting vaccines. 

“We know, because of our experience with the community, that word of mouth is really the way individuals get the information best,” said Felix M. Valbuena Jr., M.D., a family physician and CEO of the Community Health and Social Services Center, Inc., which has served Southwest Detroit residents for 51 years. 

Each week when Valbuena received the health center’s 600 vaccines, he encouraged everyone who stopped by to get vaccinated and to share their experience with family and friends. An easily accessible Spanish-language phone recording made it simple to call with questions and to schedule appointments. In-person events at churches, high schools, and community centers enabled others to get a vaccine – but even closer to their homes.

“The subtleties of our dialects, whether it is written or spoken, always exists. But the ability for someone to directly ask the question and then have them answer that – and talk through those subtleties – is what really works best.”

Felix M. Valbuena Jr., M.D.

CEO of the Community Health and Social Services Center, Inc.

For nearly five months, this type of community-engaged outreach helped vaccinate nearly 5,000 residents throughout Detroit. Valbuena has also collaborated with researchers at the University of Michigan to host in-person town hall events, live-streamed through YouTube, and conduct radio and television interviews, broadcast in English and Spanish, to reach others throughout the state. A Take the Mic contest encouraged Michigan residents, especially those living in areas disproportionately affected by COVID-19, to share messages, which they could submit through written words or multimedia, such as songs, photos, and digital illustrations. “Wear a mask,” “Spread hope not COVID,” and “Be your brother’s keeper” became winning entries.

Throughout the country, other NIH CEAL researchers have used similar tools – audio, visuals, and dialogue – to share information in Spanish. “The subtleties of our dialects, whether it is written or spoken, always exists,” Valbuena explained at an NIH CEAL workshop in March. “But the ability for someone to directly ask the question and then have them answer that – and talk through those subtleties – is what really works best.”

Ann Cheney, Ph.D., an assistant professor of social medicine and population health at the University of California at Riverside, found this approach also provides timely information where many conversations start: social media. WhatsApp, Instagram, and TikTok have enabled CEAL researchers to share COVID-19 resources and news about pop-up vaccine clinics. Facebook Live and Zoom enabled others to host live discussions.

And, Valbuena adds, while many researchers are thinking about “the fierce urgency of now” – such as getting health information and vaccines to as many people as possible – they are also working together to strengthen health disparity research.

To wit: the Detroit Metropolitan Areas Communities Study (DMACS) launched in 2016 to inform local health policies. After hearing from 1,100 residents who participated in COVID-19 surveys last year, DMACS researchers shared this feedback with the Michigan CEAL group. A natural partnership formed to further inform state-based social determinants of health research.

Learn about similar community-engaged research and outreach taking place in Southern California and Central California.


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