LAWRENCE (KSNT) – A $2.5 million grant has been awarded to the University of Kansas to study and develop a program to educate and encourage women leaving jail to get tested and vaccinated for COVID-19. KU called the group one of the country’s most vulnerable populations.

The grant builds on a previous grant to address the needs of women leaving jail. The hope, according to KU, is to develop ways to get the information to vulnerable groups and then use that knowledge on a broader scale across the country.

“When we applied for the grant, we were in an environment in which we were strongly encouraging vaccination. At the time we wrote the grant, we were seeing about 50 percent vaccinated in this population, and the percentage in the larger United States was about the same,” said Megha Ramaswamy, professor of population health at KU Medical Center and a co-principal investigator of the grant. “We thought testing would continue to be important, and with the emergence of the omicron variant, it is showing to be very much so. Screening is the bread and butter of the public health world.”

The research team is working with more than 500 women leaving jail in Kansas City, Kansas, and Kansas City, Missouri; Oakland, California; and Birmingham, Alabama.

Researchers hope to develop systems that can be applied to other underserved and vulnerable populations.

“This could easily become a nationwide resource. One of the advantages of the system is it is extremely flexible, scalable, and easy to update, which is of utmost importance with evolving topics such as the COVID-19 pandemic ” Geana said. “It can easily be adapted for other underserved populations as well.”

The team will research concepts such as vaccine hesitancy, knowledge about screening, and how they work in vulnerable populations that may have mental health problems, lack of access to housing, employment, and a general mistrust of government-backed programs.

“There is no time to waste,” Ramaswamy said. “Timing is critical, and we’ll be pushing this out very fast. Testing is essential in curbing the current wave of infections with the omicron variant of the coronavirus, and we hope that our intervention will contribute to emphasize its importance and value to this underserved population.”