NCCU, UNCP, Lumbee Tribe launch COVID testing initiative

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North Carolina Central University and two partners from the state’s Sandhills region are coming together to provide free COVID-19 testing and education for North Carolina’s Lumbee community.

NCCU is partnering with the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina and The University of North Carolina at Pembroke to implement the program, which was funded by a $1.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health. The project is aimed at reducing rates of COVID exposure in Native Americans, who are 3.5 times more likely than Caucasions to contract the disease and 5.8 times more likely to be hospitalized.

“Building Resilience and Vital Equity,” known by the acronym BRAVE, was designed to leverage the resources of NCCU’s Advanced Center for Covid Related Disparaties (ACCORD) to serve Native American communities in Hoke, Scotland, Robeson and Cumberland counties, NCCU Chancellor Johnson O. Akinleye said.

“We are pleased to now have the mission of expanding COVID-19 testing, education and research into these four counties,” Akinleye said. “Our team will be able to apply what they have learned so far in this pandemic, as we reach out to establish trust and provide services that have been scarce for many residents of this region.”

NCCU’s ACCORD center was funded in June 2020 by the North Carolina Board of Governors, with research focused on underserved African American and Hispanic communities in nine counties. With 122,000 or more Native American residents, North Carolina is home to the largest population of Indigenous Peoples east of the Mississippi River.

“I am honored to develop partnerships like this in our continued effort to address the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Lumbee Tribal Chairman Harvey Godwin Jr. “Grassroot initiatives such as testing and research will allow us to have access to the much-needed data to fight the pandemic throughout our communities.” 

Deepak Kumar, Ph.D., principal investigator for BRAVE and director of the Julius L. Chambers Biomedical Biotechnology Research Institute at NCCU, is working with co-principal investigators Xinyan Shi, Ph.D., of UNC Pembroke, and Patrick Strickland of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina.

UNC Pembroke Chancellor Robin Gary Cummings, M.D., said he believes BRAVE could lead to better healthcare in the region.

“Chancellor Akinleye and I are looking forward to this important partnership,” Cummings said. “UNC Pembroke is focused on improving health outcomes in Southeastern North Carolina through innovative programs and partnerships. BRAVE will be an important way we can collaborate to provide valuable information for the Tribe and the local health care systems to meet the unique needs of our region.”

More than half of the Native Americans living in North Carolina reside in one of the four counties covered by the BRAVE initiative: Robeson (39.4%), Scotland (11.5%), Hoke (8.4%) and Cumberland (1.4%). People of Native American heritage make up 1.2% of North Carolina’s statewide population.

Along with reaching meeting specific health concerns for Native American, the BRAVE initiative will identify areas known as “testing deserts,” where residents have had little access to COVID-19 testing and other medical services.

Many residents in the region face barriers to quality health care, including high poverty rates, limited transportation options, and issues of trust, according to the grant proposal.