HBCUs get $15 million from Gates Foundation to expand coronavirus testing

“This will give us a different level of capacity,” said Wayne A.I. Frederick, the president of Howard. “The intent was really to have all the HBCUs participate, and if you have 10 hubs . . . I think we do have the capacity to cover just about everyone.”

Howard aims to work with other D.C.-area HBCUs, including Morgan State and Coppin State universities in Baltimore and the University of the District of Columbia, Frederick said.

HBCUs and the communities they serve have been among the hardest hit by the coronavirus. Black colleges and universities, historically under-resourced, are being acutely affected by the financial crisis the pandemic ushered into the world of higher education. And Black Americans, in part because of disparities in health-care access that are exacerbated by economic inequality, are at an increased risk of contracting the coronavirus and dying of covid-19, the disease it causes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But university leaders are hopeful the support from the Gates Foundation will make a difference by bringing more tests and faster results to their communities.

“All of us are located in . . . communities where these disparities are occurring and where the impact, I believe, will be tremendously great,” said Larry Robinson, the president of Florida A&M University in Tallahassee. Florida A&M also was selected to be a testing hub. He said the university will process tests for three other HBCUs in Florida.

Other testing hubs announced Tuesday will be at Hampton University in Hampton, Va., Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, and Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans. Up to four more schools will be selected in the coming weeks, a Gates Foundation executive said.

“The colleges and universities will continue to need access to diagnostic testing and test processing until vaccines and therapeutics are universally available and accessible,” said Toni Hoover, the director of strategy planning and management for global health for the foundation, adding that the gift will enable schools “to strengthen their lab capabilities and research capacities.”

The infrastructure for these partnerships comes from the Just Project, an initiative by Thermo Fisher Scientific, a lab equipment company that is providing free test kits, supplies and training to HBCUs. So far, 46 schools have signed up to serve as testing hubs, testing sites or both, said Ron O’Brien, a spokesman for the company.

The White House, also in an attempt to address the disproportionately high impacts of the pandemic on Black communities, announced last month that it is shipping more than 500,000 BinaxNOW rapid coronavirus tests to historically Black campuses. Some schools, including Howard, have started using them, officials said.

Frequent testing has been a hallmark of colleges that have been able to keep their campuses open through the pandemic. But aggressive testing protocols come with hefty costs.

“Many of our colleges just don’t have the budget,” said Patrick Johnson, the senior vice president for university advancement at Meharry Medical College. “It’s very expensive to test and to test frequently.”

Still, many HBCUs have managed to keep caseloads low. Fewer than 150 students are living on Howard’s campus as the D.C. university conducts the semester virtually, and just 18 positive cases among students and employees have been reported since August, according to the university’s most recent data.

FAMU, which is conducting some in-person classes and housing about 1,350 students on the Tallahassee campus, has reported 97 cases in the same period, data shows.

The Gates Foundation’s support will allow universities to do more — such as expanding contact tracing, reporting test results faster and, potentially, reintroducing more in-person classes, Frederick said. Howard leaders are still determining whether the campus can take more students in the spring, and the school’s new role as a testing hub is a “major factor” in that process, Frederick said.

But Frederick remains cautious. Howard, with more than 9,300 students, employs more African Americans than any other college or university in the country, Frederick said.

“With African Americans being at risk for not just contracting the virus, but also dying from the virus, we have a different level of obligation to make sure that we keep everyone safe,” he said.

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