C/M Tiffany Thomas to lead PVAMU in national COVID-19 initiative
Houston City Councilmember and PVAMU professor Tiffany Thomas.

Prairie View A&M University alumna, program coordinator and assistant professor of community development in PVAMU’s School of Architecture, Tiffany Thomas, is also a Houston city councilmember. Not only that, she is the UNCF’s John and Drucie Chase Young Builders Award winner, which annually honors a leader in education for efforts inside and outside the classroom.

But the good news doesn’t stop there.

Thomas’ educational leadership efforts also earned her a $292,039, two-year grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). The grant is part of a $2.25 billion national initiative to address COVID-19 health disparities among underserved and high-risk populations, including racial and ethnic minority populations and rural communities.

“The grant is funded by the DHHS through CDC to engage with the Waller County community due to low COVID-19 vaccine rates,” said Thomas. “However, the genesis of the partnership began in 2018 when I completed a needs assessment for the city of Prairie View with my Introduction to Community Development course.”

Thomas said the project will include more creative ways to assess community driven priorities for the overall Waller County.

“This information will be valuable when assessing how Waller County can respond to the diverse needs in a diverse and growing county—bilingual, rural, agriculture and neighborhoods with limited technology,” added Thomas whose community service also includes being Houston’s District B representative on City Council.

“Our work will focus on engaging with the Waller County community and learning how they would prefer to receive information and communication in and out of a pandemic. We will also host in-person and virtual sessions to learn more about their priorities,” Thomas said. “It’s something I’m really excited to be involved with.”

And that $292K will not just allow Thomas to continue her good work, but also support PVAMU students.

“The $292K will support me, as principal investigator and three student researchers to support engagement activities to include data collection, public facing community meetings and a presentation to DHHS of a community directory and recommendations from every day residents,” said Thomas.

Another point of pride for Thomas and her alma mater is that PVAMU is the only Texas HBCU that’s part of the initiative.

“The hope is that when Waller County is presented with an additional funding opportunity, they (Commissioners) will have the data and people-driven information to make the best decision. This is significant for PVAMU because as an 1890-founded institution, our mission is explicit in extending resources and information to the surrounding areas—essentially serving as an institution of public good.”

Thomas views this as an incredible opportunity to extend the institution’s reach across the county. Rural areas, she noted, don’t enjoy the same governmental resources or access points for health or health information.

“This is an opportunity for the community development graduate program to raise our profile, put out meaningful research and go into rural communities – something we have not focused on in the last few years,” said Thomas. “We have an opportunity to become an authority on the rural community that surrounds us, and as a land grant institution, this helps us amplify our original mission.”

Thomas, whose work includes the creation of a rural community needs assessment tool to influence health outcomes, said that her program’s relationship with the Texas Department of State Health Services dates from 2018, when she and one of her classes performed a community needs assessment for the City of Prairie View.

“The agency was really interested in doing a lot of outreach in Waller County but didn’t have an apparatus to do so,” Thomas said. “So, we started this relationship and began sharing information. Of course, with COVID, the CDC initiated some funding with the state department of health. Our region’s COVID vaccination rate was not as competitive as others.”

The CDC’s announcement of the initiative noted evidence showing that “racial and ethnic minority groups and people living in rural communities have disproportionate rates of chronic diseases that can increase the risk of becoming severely ill from COVID-19. They may also encounter barriers to testing, treatment or vaccination.”

The funding, “which represents CDC’s largest investment to date to support communities affected by COVID-19-related health disparities,” marks a move toward greater health equity.

“This grant isn’t your typical research project,” said Thomas. “We will activate engaged research methods to support, outline and communicate the priorities of the greater Waller County community with the hope that if there is future funding, Waller County will be able to quickly apply and receive support based on our initial work. With COVID-19 fatigue and most of the nation transitioning back to pre-pandemic times, we have an opportunity to have a broader conversation in general about how residents would like to receive information related to a pandemic, vaccinations, disaster recovery and even social services.”

“Secondly, how can we inform officials in the county on the next steps in terms of what they need to do in order to prepare? Is it creating a dashboard, is it utilizing a county-wide text system like they use in Harris County, and is it important to do so in multiple languages?”

Thomas and others in the community development program have had ongoing discussions about the project’s flexibility—the CDC intended to center the initiative on COVID-19 and then decided to add influenza.

“We know we will have to pivot a number of times throughout 2022 and 2023,” Thomas said. “But everybody’s excited, and I’m particularly looking forward to our students being able to participate in real, engaged work that will benefit our state and region. I am also appreciative of the support from Waller County Judge and the commissioners as they are key partners in this work.”

Thomas hopes to have preliminary results to Waller County by May 2023.