Gardner Health Services and Stanford expand COVID-19 research to East San Jose
A sign at the Mexican Heritage Plaza on Alum Rock Avenue recommends COVID-19 testing. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

After fighting to get testing sites in hard-hit communities, South Bay health nonprofits are now turning their attention to ensure equity in vaccine trials.

In East San Jose, Gardner Health Services, a community clinic that serves disenfranchised and vulnerable communities, and Stanford Medicine are collaborating to enroll Latinx people in vaccine trials and research.

“We are making sure that the CDC is aware – and I think they are – that minority populations and people of color and people of lower socioeconomic status are at higher risk for bad outcomes from this virus,” said Dr. Bonnie Maldonado, a Stanford University researcher who is one of the coordinators of the study.

She said COVID-19 has exacerbated communities such as East San Jose, and making certain residents are a part of research will ensure they have representation when vaccines develop.

“Whether it is a biologic issue or a socioeconomic issue, it doesn’t really matter,” Maldonado said. “The point is that we need to make sure that these are populations that are represented because frequently these are people who don’t have the access to have their voices heard or to be able to access services.”

Limited access to testing, overcrowded housing and working in exposure to hundreds of people has exacerbated COVID-19’s toll in East San Jose.

Maribel Montanez, Gardner’s director of development, said at the beginning of the pandemic in March, the East Side primarily needed more access to testing.

Now as Gardner is footing a $14,800 a month bill to fund a testing site at the Mexican Heritage Plaza, Montanez said the next step is ensuring community members are a part of the research to find COVID-19 immunity.

“It’s kind of like this mutual respect and vision for the communities of color,” Montanez said. “If there’s going to be a vaccine that’s developed, and we’re going to follow people that are most impacted, we want to understand what the underlying causes are and the reasons why minorities are harder impacted.”

Historically, enrollment of Black and Latinx people for clinical trials in the United States has been disproportionately low.

In Food and Drug Administration trials for cardiovascular and diabetes medications from 2008-2017, only 4% of participants were Black and only 11% were Latinx, according to the Journal of the American Heart Association.

When Gardner created a pop-up testing site in the Alviso neighborhood of San Jose, Stanford joined the health nonprofit to call each person who tested positive and ask if they were willing to have blood drawn for vaccine research.

“Not all of them.chose to participate in this study. Some of them did,” Montanez said.

Stanford tests a group of 35-50 people each week at the Mexican Heritage Plaza in East San Jose. Montanez said the partnership will help build trust with those who participate in vaccine trials.

“Stanford has this very prominent name with a lot of credibility and they have never seen what they saw with our test site, so many people of color showed up to get tested on one day on the Fourth of July.” Montanez said. “We carry the credibility of being a very trusted resource to the east San Jose community. So people of color, whether you’re Mexican or Latino or Vietnamese, our population really trusts us.”

Maldonado is a liaison to the Advisory Committee of Immunization Practices within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which decides how federally-approved vaccines will be used on different age groups and populations in the United States.

She also has an advisory role in the California Scientific Safety Review Workgroup to assess the safety of vaccines approved by the FDA.

“I want to make sure that the government is trustworthy,” Maldonado said. “I think that is a big issue, of course, and then to come back to people and say this is what the government has said and this is what they’re trying to do, and explain to the people in their own language so that they understand what’s going on. I think that’s always difficult.”

In East San Jose, Montanez said Gardner wants that residents hardest hit by the pandemic will have access to a vaccine during the early phases of its release.

“First responders and the medical healthcare providers should go first,” she said. “But we think that the next two are those that are the most impacted, which are communities of color, so Black and Latino (communities) should go next.”

Contact Mauricio La Plante at [email protected] or follow @mslaplantenews on Twitter.

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