Dr. Dominic H. Mack of Morehouse School of Medicine watched the White House coronavirus task force hearings on Tuesday with more than a casual interest and a bit of anxiety. He and his colleagues had hoped it would provide a special moment.
Sure enough, it came a few minutes into the presentation by Brett Giroir, an assistant secretary of health, when he announced that Morehouse had been awarded a $40 million grant to address the outbreak in African American and other vulnerable communities in the United States.
The exaltation that Mack, Morehouse President Valerie Montgomery Rice and others at the institution felt was palpable. Morehouse, a historically Black college in Atlanta that has been committed to serving the African American community, would be the lead on helping it rise out of the deadliest pandemic in a century.
“To get that confirmation, it was exciting, to say the least,” said Mack, a professor and director of the National Center for Primary Care at the Morehouse School of Medicine.
HHS did not alert Morehouse in advance that it had beat out several major medical colleges.
“We found out when everyone found out — by watching the announcement on TV,” Mack said, crediting Rice with quickly putting the proposal together. “It’s gratifying.”
The award, with $15 million coming to the school this year, allows it to center its COVID-19 work on an African American community that has a profound distrust of medical institutions, even as it has been disproportionately devastated by the pandemic.
An APM Research Lab study, “The Color of Coronavirus,” found that more than 25,000 Black people had died as of June 9, a mortality rate 2.3 times higher than whites and Asian Americans. Morehouse School of Medicine now gets to reach out to those communities through the grant with the goal of lowering those numbers.
“I’m so proud right now,” said Dr. John Maupin, who served as president of Morehouse School of Medicine and Meharry Medical College. “This is a huge moment for them. But bigger than that, it’s a huge moment for health care in our communities during a crucial time in our history with this pandemic.”
The Morehouse program, the National COVID-19 Resiliency Network, will essentially be a ground attack on the coronavirus in the Black, Native American and Latinos communities, with Morehouse Medical College personnel teaming with local organizations to make inroads in treatment, care and other aspects of public health.
“A lot of groups of color are suffering,” Mack said, “with African Americans at the top. A lot of this comes down to trust. We have been at the forefront in underserved communities during crises before, like Hurricane Katrina. It’s our base. So, having a trusted source to treat and educate on testing and vaccinations, etc., can help overcome some of the distrust Blacks have with medical institutions.
“We know the history and we know the lack of trust is real. But we will partner at the community level to assure we are reaching and helping the people we need to help. We are thankful to be the lead on this, but our partners in communities will be a big part of this.”
Maupin said having an HBCU in this position is invaluable for the future of health care in deprived communities.
“It speaks loudly to the value of HBCU medical centers and the value of having individuals of science and institutions that come from trusted places,” he said. “We have to have greater engagement of the minority communities in various kinds of scientific studies that give us new knowledge on how to manage and handle things.
“The efficacy of the scientific work is dependent on the people involved so you understand how things impact those in one community versus those in another community, those with one background versus those with another background,” he said.
“So this enables a group of profound scientists and dedicated individuals who have always believed in serving the underserved to do important work where it is needed,” Maupin added.
Mack agreed that the award was reaffirming the quality of their work at HBCU health institutions in general, Morehouse School of Medicine in particular.
“This gives HBCUs a moment of confidence,” he said, simply.
The four predominantly Black medical colleges—Morehouse, Meharry Howard University College of Medicine and Charles Drew Medical University of Medical Science—routinely work together and are seeking to form a consortium to address COVID-19 on a larger scale in the Black community.
Meharry President Dr. James Hildreth testified before the House and Ways Committee last month and advocated funding the consortium, which would be called CBMS.
“The CBMS has the necessary history, organizational structure, deep relationships with national and international organizations dedicated to eradicating health care disparities, and credibility within disenfranchised communities to scale up immediately and rapidly,” Hildreth said.
There has not been any word yet on funding for CBMS. But Morehouse's grant is a step in that direction.
“We will begin right away, working with HHS and multiple partnerships across communities,” Mack said. “As exciting as it was to get the news of the grant, doing the work and helping the many underserved communities is more exciting.”