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Research doctor Olveen Carrasquillo wants to see more Latinos, Blacks in coronavirus studies

"COVID is affecting more Latinos and Blacks, but they're not being represented in studies," said the Puerto Rican doctor, who is leading a vaccine trial. "That worries us."
Image: Dr. Olveen Carrasquillo.
Dr. Olveen Carrasquillo.Daiana Ruiz / for NBC News

For Dr. Olveen Carrasquillo, who has multiple roles at the University of Miami Health System, "everything changed" once the coronavirus pandemic hit.

As chief of general medicine, Carrasquillo oversaw not only how the hospital treated COVID-19 patients but also how it made the transition from face-to-face visits to telemedicine throughout its primary care practices. That was daunting, particularly for older patients who might be less tech-savvy, he said.

As a doctor, he has been doing rotations at the COVID-19 unit of Jackson Memorial Hospital, Miami-Dade County's public hospital.

Much of his time, however, is focused on his job as a research physician. Carrasquillo is leading one of the trials for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which is entering Phase 3 and will include 1,500 participants.

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Carrasquillo is drawing on his years of work focusing on minority health, in which he has specialized in addressing health disparities through the use of community health workers, also known as "promotores de salud" (health promoters). His hospital just received a grant to educate people about COVID-19 and the importance of their participation in research trials.

"COVID is affecting more Latinos and Blacks, but they're not being represented in studies. That worries us," Carrasquillo said.

The most challenging part, Carrasquillo said, was in the early days. "Every doctor will tell you we really didn't know how to manage this at the beginning, and there was no treatment. It was very scary," he said.

Uncertainty also surrounded the transmission and spread of the virus. "It was clear this was not a cold virus. This was very different, and we really didn't know how to manage it," he said.

By the time Florida reached its second coronavirus peak around July, a lot had been learned from other hard-hit cities, like New York, about how to treat the virus and care for patients. By mid-July, Jackson Memorial's intensive care units had reached capacity.

"You just have to work harder," Carrasquillo said. "That's what we do as doctors."

Now he is dealing with patients who have recovered but have residual symptoms, like cognitive effects and body aches.

Miami is home to many Latin Americans, including doctors from different countries. Carrasquillo said they often compare stories with their colleagues throughout the region about how to manage patients with COVID-19.

"You see that here in Miami," he said. "Doctors are helping folks in Latin America."

Carrasquillo was born in Puerto Rico, and his parents moved to New York to complete their studies when he was 6 years old. The family figured it would be a temporary move, but they ended up staying, and Carrasquillo grew up in the Bronx.

He attended New York University's medical school and did his residency at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital, where he later worked. He also completed his fellowship at Cambridge Hospital in Massachusetts.

At Columbia, Carrasquillo did extensive research among the Hispanic population and worked with community-based organizations to increase their partnerships with universities to facilitate more medical access and resources for Hispanic families.

In 2009, he moved to Miami to take on his current role, in which he continues to focus on community partnerships serving Latinos and other groups.

Carrasquillo said that he always wanted to be a doctor but that he really started to understand the importance of his chosen career during high school.

"In high school, you start seeing the socioeconomic differences. You begin to see how minorities are treated in public hospitals. You see real differences. You see a lot of discrimination that happens in health care," he said.

Some of it is based on ability to pay, and some is due to language barriers, Carrasquillo said.

He also noticed the disparity in the medical field. At NYU, Carrasquillo was one of only two Latinos in a class of 120 medical students. Less than 6 percent of current doctors are Hispanic, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.

"I really want to make a difference, and I want to change the way things are," he said.

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