SPOTLIGHT | June 16, 2021

This Isn't Helicopter Research

As COVID-19 spread throughout the country last year, Nancy Burke, Ph.D., a professor of public health at the University of California at Merced quickly began working with other state CEAL researchers and with Claudia Corchado, program manager of the longstanding community-based organization Cultiva la Salud. In short order, they set up focus groups with Hispanic/Latino residents in California’s San Joaquin Valley. 

Through these meetings and other community surveys, the group learned that many residents – including many farm workers – supported COVID-19 tests, vaccines, and using safety precautions, such as quarantining after an infection. Yet, putting these public health measures into practice, they discovered, could be a challenge. In a place that many often refer to as the “breadbasket of the country,” the San Joaquin Valley is also home to the highest rates of food insecurity in the state. Providing essential resources to help residents respond to COVID-19 was essential. 

This community feedback, combined with results from focus groups and outreach in 10 other CEAL research groups in the state, helped California officials create a personalized response to the pandemic. For example, resources were allocated to help agricultural workers in the Central Valley receive protective equipment, like masks, as well as self-isolate and receive nourishment if they were exposed to the virus, and access COVID-19 tests and vaccines. 

“We’re not just doing drop-in, or as they say in the Central Valley, helicopter-in research,” Burke said. “This is really based on a long-term engagement.” 

The partnership between Burke and Corchado helped university researchers partner with 287 women Corchado’s organization trained to become promotoras, or community health promoters. The organization’s goal is to create healthful living environments and strengthen health equity in San Joaquin Valley.

“We’re not just doing drop-in, or as they say in the Central Valley, helicopter-in research. This is really based on a long-term engagement.”

Nancy Burke, Ph.D.

Professor, University of California at Merced

“When we survey residents, and when we do focus groups, and we do all this data collection from residents, it’s also important to report back,” Corchado, a trusted messenger in her community, shared at an NIH CEAL workshop in March. The virtual meeting provided a platform for CEAL researchers throughout the country to connect with each other and share strategies that have worked well in their regions. 

Corchado and Burke also explained that by sharing updates with the promotoras, these women and others in the community learned that their feedback mattered. For example, pop-up vaccine clinics in Planada and Atwater, tiny towns on the way to Yosemite National Park, eliminated hurdles that had made getting vaccinated difficult, such as showing identification, registering online, and traveling to sites. Two events helped vaccinate 1,900 people. 

Other events – at flea markets, farms, churches, and schools – are happening now. Phone lines in English, Spanish, Hmong, and Punjabi aim to make it even easier for those living in the Central Valley to reserve a time to get vaccinated.  

“We have started to bring vaccines to where people are,” Burke said. “The more we can address these concerns by making the vaccine easily accessible and convenient, and by working with our promotoras to address mis- and disinformation, the more success we will have in reaching a broader swath of the population.” 

Connecting with people “street by street, block by block,” which resembles the “paletero or panadero system,” Corchado said, is a way to ensure that everyone who wants a vaccine has access to it. This helps bring resources to people in the safety and comfort of their neighborhood – and even closer to home.

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


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