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Vaccine trials call for Black, Latino people

Mark M. Spradley searched online for a vaccine clinical trial the way most people go shopping.

Spradley, heeding an inner call to public duty, combed through the National Institutes of Health’s website and signed up for a trial underway at George Washington University because he was eager to become part of a massive, accelerated effort to develop a vaccine for the novel coronavirus that causes the disease COVID-19.

He did so because friends had become sickened, because he wanted to fight back against a disease that has prevented him from traveling or going out, and because he was curious.

“I trust science,” said Spradley, who is African American and a former trustee of Tuskegee University. He said he was also motivated because he knows the stakes are especially high for people of color, both because of COVID-19’s disproportionate toll and a long history of unethical medical research on minorities. He felt it was important to step up.

“Because it is a pandemic, because it does involve public health, because you are a citizen, you have a responsibility to your friends, your family and your neighbors,” Spradley, 66, a financial adviser who lives in Chevy Chase, Md., said in an interview. “That’s what public health is, to my mind — a shared responsibility between the healthy, the unhealthy and on and on. It’s like all hands on deck. Everyone has a role to play.”

GWU is among about 90 sites chosen to participate in Operation Warp Speed, a vast public-private initiative led by the federal government to develop a coronavirus vaccine. The University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore is also taking part.

The clinical trial uses a bio-engineered vaccine, developed by Cambridge, Mass.-based Moderna in collaboration with NIH, that teaches the body’s immune system to recognize and neutralize the virus by targeting the spike proteins that envelop it and allow it to penetrate human cells. The vaccine, using snippets of genetic coding, triggers the body to produce new spike proteins, prompting the immune system to create antibodies that hunt them down. The nationwide trial is expected to enroll about 30,000 participants. Pfizer also launched the final phase of testing for a coronavirus vaccine on 30,000 volunteers.

A critical goal for the Phase 3 clinical trial is also to ensure that the pool of the vaccine test subjects reflects the nation’s diversity, including minorities, older Americans and people with preexisting health conditions. It’s all the more important given the disparate impact the pandemic has had on Blacks, Latinos or other minorities. A Washington Post analysis of available data earlier this year found that majority-Black counties had three times the rate of infections and almost six times the rate of deaths as White-majority counties.

In late August, Moderna and Pfizer announced that about half the number of people needed have been enrolled, but only about a fifth of those participants are Black or Hispanic.

But GWU researchers, having reached the midpoint of their overall goal of enlisting 500 people, have exceeded their diversity target, university spokeswoman Lisa Anderson said Thursday. She said about 50% of the those who have enrolled so far are people of color, a figure well above their target of about 30%. Although recruiting has been swift from the beginning, the pace has increased as the end point, both for GWU’s target and the national goal, grows closer.

“We’re enrolling people as fast as we can,” Anderson said.

Recruiting minorities for clinical trials has long been challenging because of the history of racist abuses in medical research. Many Black people — aware of the infamous Tuskegee study, the “immortal” use of Henrietta Lacks’s cancerous tissue in research without her consent or J. Marion Sims’s gynecological experimentation on enslaved people — want nothing to do with any medical experiment. Though lesser known than the Tuskegee syphilis study, documented reports of unethical medical research conducted in the 1940s by the U.S. government on unsuspecting people in Guatemala has made people who are Latino wary, too. Recent studies show racial biases persist in health care, showing up in higher rates of death from chronic diseases, unequal access to care and even in assessing and providing treatment for pain.

“It’s still been difficult just in normal times to get people of color communities to enroll in clinical trials. And I guess what I like to say is, it’s for good reason,” said Joseph Betancourt, vice president and chief equity and inclusion officer at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. “Now you’re talking about a clinical trial on a vaccine for a condition that has absolutely crushed communities of color across the country.”

Enrolling minorities in coronavirus vaccine trials has been hampered by uncertainties of the disease and the unprecedented speed with which a vaccine is being developed. Those concerns were magnified, some say, when the public-private vaccine program was named Operation Warp Speed. Conflicting advice early on about the importance of wearing masks has also fed distrust, Betancourt said.

Betancourt, who is Puerto Rican, said it’s important for researchers to tap “trusted messengers” in minority communities who can explain the importance of minority participation in clinical trials. These messengers could be local politicians and activists, leaders in the faith community, community-based organizations, or minority physicians and health-care providers.

“COVID-19 is obviously shining a really bright light on issues of inequity, across the board, including these disparities that are related to research participation that have been really long-standing,” said Bisola Ojikutu, an infectious-disease physician at Massachusetts General and Brigham and Women’s hospitals who directs community-engaged research programs. “You have to work with people who are trusted.”

However, the unusually aggressive outreach by coronavirus researchers into traditionally underserved communities has aroused suspicion, said Karen Kotloff, principal investigator in U-Md.’s medical school’s part of the Moderna-NIH clinical trial.

“There are many rumors assigning bad motivations to why society would want to be running after these groups,” Kotloff said. To overcome that distrust, her team joined with CASA of Maryland to set up a satellite clinic for the experimental vaccine in a Hyattsville, Md., garden-apartment complex where many people who are Latino live.

David Diemert and Marc Siegel, who are overseeing GWU’s vaccine trial, have extensive experience in vaccine development.

Diemert has worked for many years on finding cures for tropical diseases. Both have considerable experience conducting research with an international network designed to prevent the spread of HIV and develop a vaccine against the deadly virus that attacks the immune system — networks that have been pressed into service to develop a vaccine for the coronavirus.

“Obviously, D.C. is a very diverse city and has a large African American population, and I think that’s one of the reasons they saw us as a good site,” Siegel said. He said researchers also have targeted older people and people with underlying health conditions.

To break down barriers to participation, GWU administered the experimental vaccine or a placebo on campus and from a van that visited local neighborhoods. Through these efforts, doctors and researchers attempt to address people’s fears. This includes explaining how the vaccine works and why it’s not possible to contract the disease from the vaccine.

Elmer Huerta, director of GWU’s Cancer Preventorium Clinic, has recruited women and minorities to participate in several clinical trials, including research on the breast cancer drug tamoxifen. A Peruvian immigrant, Huerta also hosts a daily radio show on health issues — “El Consultorio Comunitario,” or Community Clinic of the Air — that reaches a large audience of Latino immigrants in the Washington area.

Huerta, who has homes in D.C. and Maryland, said many of his listeners are working people, often with little more than a grade school education, and he addresses their concerns and explains the science in terms they understand. He, too, decided to sign up for GWU’s Phase 3 clinical trial and share his experience with his listeners.

“Many times I have talked to them about the importance of clinical trials,” said Huerta, 68. “So this time, I say, ‘My God, if the doctor is recommending to his listeners and encouraging them to do it, why not do it myself?’ “

Rain dampens Sunday activities

HUNTINGTON — A steady pounding of rain soaked the Tri-State Sunday, flooding the usual city streets and viaducts.

Monday’s forecast is sunny, with a high near 80, according to the National Weather Service. Monday night is clear, with a low around 54. Tuesday will bring more sun with a high near 79.

There’s another chance of showers Thursday and Friday.

Nearly 180 new cases of COVID-19 reported in West Virginia

HUNTINGTON — Nearly 180 new cases of the novel coronavirus were reported across the Mountain State on Saturday.

The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR) reported 178 new cases of the virus as of 10 a.m. Sunday, for a total of 12,699. There were also one new death reported — a 81-year-old woman from Logan County — bringing the state’s total number of virus-related deaths to 266.

“We offer our deepest sympathy as our state grieves another loss,” said Bill J. Crouch, DHHR Cabinet Secretary.

Cases by county are: Barbour (36), Berkeley (872), Boone (176), Braxton (9), Brooke (104), Cabell (654), Calhoun (22), Clay (30), Doddridge (17), Fayette (470), Gilmer (19), Grant (147), Greenbrier (117), Hampshire (95), Hancock (137), Hardy (75), Harrison (320), Jackson (228), Jefferson (403), Kanawha (1,985), Lewis (37), Lincoln (139), Logan (544), Marion (243), Marshall (139), Mason (124), McDowell (80), Mercer (379), Mineral (149), Mingo (301), Monongalia (1,691), Monroe (144), Morgan (44), Nicholas (66), Ohio (328), Pendleton (46), Pleasants (15), Pocahontas (56), Preston (142), Putnam (399), Raleigh (415), Randolph (230), Ritchie (9), Roane (41), Summers (28), Taylor (113), Tucker (16), Tyler (15), Upshur (58), Wayne (317), Webster (7), Wetzel (46), Wirt (9), Wood (333), Wyoming (80).

The Cabell-Huntington Health Department reported 227 active cases of the virus Sunday.

In Ohio, the Lawrence County Health Department reported nine new cases of COVID-19 on Saturday, with patients’ ages ranging from 12 to 73. The new cases included four children. There have been 555 cases in the county, with 477 out of isolation.

Statewide, there had been 137,405 total cases reported as of 2 p.m. Sunday, with 4,415 deaths.

In Kentucky, the Ashland-Boyd County Health Department had not provided an update as of deadline Sunday. There were 104 active cases out of a total 358 on Saturday, with 10 new cases reported that day.

Statewide, there were 536 new cases of COVID-19 reported Sunday, for a total of 56,945. Eighty-seven of the newly reported cases were from children ages 18 and younger, according to a news release from the Governor’s Office.

“We’ve seen some troubling increases in the number of positive coronavirus cases across our commonwealth in recent weeks,” Gov. Andy Beshear said. “Let’s remember that we’re not powerless in this fight. We wash our hands often and properly. We can keep our gatherings small and make sure we maintain a safe social distance. We can avoid traveling to hotspots. But most of all, we can wear a mask. It’s the best advice from the nation’s top experts and how we protect those we love during this pandemic.”

There were also three new deaths reported, for a total of 1,060. At least 10,905 Kentuckians have recovered from the virus, the release said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a total of 6,467,481 cases across the U.S. as of Sunday. There have been 193,195 deaths related to the virus.

The Associated Press reports that for most people, the novel coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the virus.

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Charleston tourism hit hard in 2020, but community remains optimistic

Hotel revenues in Charleston plunged by $17 million from March to July amid the coronavirus pandemic compared to the same period last year. The ripple effect spread further.

COVID-19 cancellations cleared streets of crowds ordinarily drawn to such events as Live on the Levee, Art Walk and FestivALL along with cook-offs, tournaments, conventions and festivals.

“If you’ve lost $17 million in hotel revenue,” said Tim Brady, president and CEO of the Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau, “that’s a significant number of people not coming to the city, not walking down Capitol Street to eat at Adelphia [Sports Bar and Grille], get ice cream at Ellen’s [Homemade Ice Cream], buy something at Taylor Books [Cafe],” Brady said. “We’ve lost a lot of spending.”

The visitors bureau pivoted to focus on more localized marketing methods and local businesses, Brady said.

“What we recognized early in time is that we need those businesses to remain successful and be around after the pandemic, because those are the things people will want to be here in the future,” Brady said. “We’re going to continue that through the fall and winter because these locally owned businesses are struggling and we want to make sure we can help them get through in any way we can.”

This summer is the reverse of last year’s record revenue run at Adelphia, said owner Dino Stanley.

“All the things we do here in summertime have been fantastic in years past. The biggest boon last year was the soccer [tournaments at Shawnee Sports Complex]. We were slammed day after day, and usually July and August are a little slower, but last year we had our best summer ever,” Stanley said. “This year, well, this year had us rethinking everything.”

When the pandemic began shutting down businesses, Black Locust Woodshop on Lee Street had been open just 153 days after Casi Pourfarhadi and Dan Riffle opened in late November.

“When we were looking for locations for the storefront, we were in downtown and we thought this would be perfect, you know, we could bring in 30-40% of our business at Art Walks, those kind of events,” Pourfarhadi said. “Obviously, that didn’t happen, though.”

Featuring hundreds of artists and spanning 15 days in June, FestivALL is usually a sure draw. The nonprofit organization staging the event adapted a digital format and will do the same for its fall event, said Maria Belcher, the group’s executive director. Belcher said organizers learned lessons amid the shutdown that could improve the events when they resume in person.

“This actually gave us an opportunity to engage with audiences we haven’t before, without geographic barriers or catching people who happened to be in town for another event,” Belcher said.

Dance groups filmed how-to videos for different dance styles. Some artists presented online galleries. Others hosted workshops.

“Yes, there was a learning curve, definitely, but these are things we can use in the future, no matter how FestivALL is held,” Belcher said. “The internet isn’t going anywhere, and we’ve learned to get creative, learned new ways to reach more people with our art.”

Each year, Belcher said, events such as FestivALL — in-person or not — only happen because of community buy-in. She said that’s held true during the pandemic, but there is sometimes a feeling of loss.

“It was a bit bittersweet. We’re still finding that community online, but it made us, to a certain extent, yearn for that in-person participation anyway. It didn’t take that place or fill that cup fully,” Belcher said. “People were happy to have something to engage with. During this time, it’s so important to have creative outlets and places you can go to feel joy and human connection.”

Pourfarhadi said the pandemic has strengthened connections in the city’s art scene. Artists talk more and bounce ideas off each other. There’s a feeling that everyone is being hit with similar struggles.

Stanley said this is true across the city and beyond.

“This is not just a local or state situation. It’s national, it’s global, and we’re all in this together, we all understand what will get us through this. We’ll bounce back and do the things we need to do to get through it and get others through it,” Stanley said. “We have a lot of great places downtown, and we all band together. One of the things this did for us as a community is we’ve banded together. We’re stronger together, and we’ll survive it together.”