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Michigan Community Engagement Alliance — a partnership of researchers and community leaders focused on fighting COVID-19 among low-income and communities of color in Wayne, Genesee, Kent and Washtenaw Counties — was recently awarded $1.4 million by the National Institutes of Health for a grant to be used against COVID-19 disparities. 

Michigan CEAL — a branch of the national CEAL program and associated with the University of Michigan — was created by the community engagement program at the Michigan Institute for Clinical and Health Research partnered with Detroit Urban Research Center. As a U-M led associate of the national CEAL initiative started by the NIH, the project aims to use the grant to help the most impacted communities get vaccinated and get informed about COVID-19.

Tricia Piechowski, one of the project managers for Michigan CEAL, said the project was created in response to a call by the NIH for engagement in communities hit hardest by COVID-19. 

“NIH was looking for groups that know how to do community-engaged research, which requires bi-directional communication, equity, respect,” Piechowski said. “It’s where community partners are full partners in the research team. When you do community engagement as an approach to research, your research is more reliable, it’s more sustainable and often more ethical.”

The University was invited to submit a proposal for the grant due to their membership in the Clinical and Translational Science Awards program, a different NIH initiative. 

“(NIH) looked to (CTSAs) in states hardest hit by COVID-19 health disparities, and Michigan happened to be one of them,” Piechowski said. “The communities that they were mostly concerned with were Detroit, Flint and Grand Rapids. Michigan had 10 days to write a response to this mechanism (grant). And because we had all those partnerships already in place, we were able to respond to this funding opportunity.”

Michigan CEAL is led by Dr. Erica Marsh, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology, and Dr. Barbara Israel, professor of health behavior and health education, as well as a 16-member steering committee comprised of different community-based organizations. 

“We have community members from four counties that were hit by health disparities from COVID-19 — Kent, Genesee, Washtenaw and Wayne,” Piechowski said. “They meet with the staff and the investigators every month, and they guide pretty much every element of the project.”

Israel explained the importance of working with communities to address health inequities. 

“We have the opportunity to build on the strengths and expertise that exists within local communities to make a real difference in the lives of residents across Michigan,” Israel said.

Piechowski also said the project has moved more into service, focusing on communication with communities. Michigan CEAL currently runs a “Take the Mic” campaign, a community crowdsourcing effort where community members submitted COVID-19 prevention messaging.

“(The campaign is) really augmenting the voices of (these) communities to say that they’re the experts, and they know what works,” Piechowski said. “We’ve been working and trying to get meetings with the governor’s office and other leaders to share these entries that we’ve received.” 

Public Health junior Lakshmi Meyyappan agreed with the value of working directly with communities impacted by COVID-19.

“(These communities) have first-hand knowledge,” Meyyappan said. “They often have the best policies as to how they want things to be changed because they have the most insight into them.”

Michigan CEAL also has a monthly COVID-19 webinar, where they invite a community partner and a medical expert to answer questions to dispel misinformation around the vaccine.

“During the event, we also make sure we have closed captioning as well as Spanish interpretation,” Piechowski said. “We’ve heard countless numbers of times that there’s not a lot of information in Spanish for Michigan communities, so that’s something we’ve been working on.”

Public Health senior Emily Guo said providing accurate information to communities regarding COVID-19 is important in encouraging individuals to get the vaccine.

“Right now there’s a lot of (vaccine) hesitancy, especially in populations that are hit the hardest by COVID since they do tend to have a higher minority proportion and overall distrust with medicine because of the lack of health care access in their community,” Guo said.

Meyyappan also agreed with the importance of providing accessible information. 

“Sometimes information has been restricted, especially when you look at COVID articles, and you see research journals,” Meyyappan said. “It’s really hard for people who don’t have the training to understand it.”

Rooker explained the significance of Michigan CEAL, saying the health disparities aren’t unique to COVID-19.

“It’s a reflection of long-standing health disparities that have impacted communities of color in Michigan and all over the country for a very long time,” Rooker said. “So this is just one way to bring some justice to those communities.”

Daily News Contributor Andrea Wong can be reached at