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In Hard-Hit Neighborhoods, Philly CEAL Outreach Aims to Address COVID Disparities

Through community engagement and improved information dissemination, researchers at Penn Nursing, Penn Medicine, and Annenberg, in conjunction with the City of Philadelphia, are working to increase vaccination and testing rates and decrease new COVID-19 infections.

Almost as soon as the pandemic took hold in the United States, an unsettling and familiar picture emerged: Though COVID-19 had broad reach, it was disproportionately harming the same populations that had historically faced health disparities in the U.S.

To address this, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) established the Community Engagement Alliance (CEAL) Against COVID-19 Disparities, a program that has given more than $45 million to 21 groups since September 2020. Philly CEAL began in May 2021, led by Penn’s School of Nursing, in conjunction with the Perelman School of Medicine, the Annenberg School for Communication, and the City of Philadelphia.

“CEAL was established to accelerate our response to this pandemic for underserved ethnic and racial minority communities using evidence-based methods,” says Penn Nursing’s José Bauermeister, who is co-leading the Philadelphia effort. “Those who are underserved or living in the less-resourced communities are often left behind and not just in COVID but in other chronic and infectious diseases.”

Philly CEAL’s first few months have been spent creating workflows, learning from a “buddy” partner program in Texas, and tweaking its focus to center on message framing and resource mobilization. It recently began on-the-ground work in 19 neighborhoods across the city, partnering with community leaders to increase vaccination and testing rates and decrease new COVID-19 infections.

‘It all feels very familiar’

Based on coronavirus trends at the time of the initial NIH funding, the bulk of those first grants went to places in the southern U.S., with nothing on the East Coast farther north than North Carolina. As trends evolved, however, the agency identified more regions that needed help, including Philadelphia.

When the NIH put out a second call for proposals, a Penn-led team applied, and in April 2021 received $1.4 million to form what became Philly CEAL. Additional support from Penn’s Office of the Provost and School of Nursing brought total funding to $1.53 million.

Baumeister is at the helm, alongside Penn Nursing Dean Antonia M. Villarruel, who expressed excitement about the partnerships with the city, other Penn schools, and the community writ large. “We will work to synergize efforts to address the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on underserved communities,” she says.

This is an excerpt from a longer article that originally appeared in Penn Today. It was written by Michele Berger, senior science news officer in University Communications. The image used in this article is courtesy of Penn Medicine Service in Action.