By Julie Steenhuysen, Nick Brown
(Reuters) – Infectious disease doctor Angela Branche needed help.
Branche and colleagues at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York were running a clinical trial for a vaccine against the coronavirus, which kills Black people at three times the rate it kills whites – yet it was mostly whites signing up. They needed more African Americans.
Unbeknownst to Branche, five miles away in Rochester’s poorest zip code, ordained minister Marsha Allen was planning a door-knocking campaign to educate residents of the mostly Black neighborhood about the virus that has killed more than 420,000 Americans.
Both women are Ivy League-educated and Black, but they exist in different orbits – one in the halls of science, the other in often-forgotten communities. Mutual connections brought them together, and in July, the pair formed an alliance: Branche’s team would help with COVID-19 education, and Allen would recruit Black participants for the vaccine trial – starting with herself.
“Doctors can’t come in here with their white suits and needles – no one will listen,” said Allen, leader of an organization called the Global Humanitarian Surround Care Mobile Wellness Initiative, whose work before the pandemic included outreach in Haiti. In Rochester, where Allen runs a community garden, she is known as Sister Marsha.
The blueprint Branche and Allen followed for the ongoing AstraZeneca Plc trial is becoming increasingly common across the United States for COVID-19 vaccine outreach. Often led by doctors and scientists of color, the efforts rely heavily on grassroots partners such as churches and health centers, and aim to topple long-standing barriers that keep minorities from participating in clinical trials.