In the first year of the pandemic, nearly 30 million Americans were diagnosed with COVID-19 and 540,000 died, with a disproportionate number of cases and deaths suffered by people of color. In The Task Force’s home base of Atlanta, Georgia, several organizations have been working to meet the needs of those communities, including a collaboration between The Task Force, the MIT Center for Constructive Communication, and others who are piloting novel ways to reach people with COVID information and services. In early April, the partners gathered virtually with other Atlanta organizations to share information on their respective efforts.
The HealthPULSE Atlanta initiative, which includes Cortico, the Institute for Local Innovations and New America in addition to The Task Force and MIT, is facilitating small-group conversations with Black Atlantans to identify how the pandemic is affecting them and their communities.
Many participants voiced concerns about the history of unethical clinical trials among communities of color, as well as general institutional distrust, and the perception that vaccine development was rushed. Both the Moderna and Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine clinical trials included proportionally representative participation from key minority groups in the U.S., but historically unethical practices, such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, have contributed to residual distrust.
Drawing from the listening sessions as well as media analytics from Twitter and radio discussions, the HealthPULSE team is crafting COVID-19 health messages that are relevant to people’s concerns and can be shared by trusted representatives to address specific health challenges and issues, particularly regarding vaccines. MIT’s data tools have mapped 200,000 Atlanta-based Twitter accounts to identify influencers within shared interest groups and to learn which COVID-19 topics are being discussed on Atlanta radio stations.
For example, the health campaign seeks to highlight Black medical experts, including those who have either informed the development of the vaccines or evaluated their safety, such as representatives of the National Medical Association, which was formed in 1895 by Black physicians to represent their collective interests in the face of exclusionary medical professional societies.
Atlanta was chosen as the HealthPulse pilot city as it is home to many institutions working on this issue. The early April gathering brought together representatives from Morehouse School of Medicine, Emory University, Wellstar Health System, the Partnership for Southern Equity, and two non-Atlanta groups, Purpose, a social impact agency, and We Got Us, a Boston initiative that links Black community members with trusted Black healthcare professionals. Participants shared information on their respective community outreach efforts with the aim of learning, coordinating efforts, and identifying collaboration opportunities.
With lessons learned from the pilot, the HealthPulse organizers hope to scale it up across the U.S.