OHSU’s COVID Tracing Study Ends after Lacking BIPOC Participants

The $6 million study ended just three months into its planned yearlong duration.

By Gabriel Granillo December 7, 2020

Shuffled in with census paperwork, campaign lit, glossy supermarket ads, and quarantine letters from old friends, a blue postcard landed in the mailboxes of some Oregonians earlier this year. And on that postcard was a keyhole. And through that keyhole was Mount Hood, gleaming in dusk’s sherbet sunlight. In brave, bold letters, the postcard read, “You are the key.”

As if part of some dystopian golden ticket scenario, in May, Oregon Health & Science University and the Oregon Health Authority sent 150,000 postcards to residents asking them to participate in the statewide “Key to Oregon” study, a $6 million project aimed at tracking COVID-19 in the state. The goal was to monitor 100,000 Oregonians for at least a year for any signs of the novel coronavirus. But by June, the study had already faced setbacks. OHSU had received only 10,000 responses for participants, and not nearly enough of them were from communities of color, groups that have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 in Oregon.

Only three months in, on August 27, OHSU announced it would end what was to be a yearlong study. OHSU said it supported ongoing conversations between the Oregon Health Authority, Gov. Kate Brown’s office, and the BIPOC Decolonizing Research and Data Council, an alliance of scientists, advocates, and leaders that was a partner on the Key to Oregon study. The focus of those conversations: racial equity. Of the criticisms the study had faced, the loudest was that it failed to include BIPOC voices, both as participants and researchers.

“If you want to effectively reach people of color, then you need to have people of color involved in that work,” Tyler TerMeer, the CEO of the Cascadia AIDS Project and one of the experts leading the BIPOC Council, told OPB in June. “There should be nothing about us without us.”

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