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IOWA CITY — As thousands of migrant workers begin arriving in Iowa to work on farms, researchers at the University of Iowa Health Care are planning to reach out to them on their mobile devices and ask about their health.
The researchers, in partnership with a mobile health center, will use a mobile application to collect health data from workers and identify their level of confidence in the COVID-19 vaccine.
They hope to develop messaging about the vaccine and improve the vaccination rate for a population that’s often invisible to the health care system.
“One of the things that the University of Iowa is really committed to is figuring out how to bring research into the spaces of rural Iowans or other folks that are hard to reach and engage in research,” said Kimberly Dukes, UI research assistant professor of internal medicine and co-principal investigator on the study.
“If we don’t know about everyone in all segments of the population, that’s really hard to advocate for policies or specific needs for health care,” she said.
Dukes and the other principal investigator Dr. Claudia Corwin, clinical assistant professor of internal medicine at the UI Carver College of Medicine, received a grant from the university’s Institute for Clinical and Translational Sciences for the project.
They’re collaborating with Proteus, a federally qualified mobile health center based in Iowa City, to find and text the seasonal migrant workers in Iowa.
Researchers will send the workers bilingual surveys with questions about their mental health, chronic conditions and attitudes about the COVID-19 vaccine.
Dukes said they’re asking the workers to text responses to questions about their health twice a week over a three-month period.
So far, they’ve collected about 160 responses.
“Mobile technology could really help address really mobile and difficult-to-reach populations,” Corwin said.
More than 7,000 seasonal migrant workers come to Iowa every spring to work on farms. Many don’t speak English and, for some, Spanish is a secondary language because they speak an Indigenous language, Corwin said.
The workers also are more likely to suffer from chronic health conditions, such as high blood pressure, which puts them at risk for severe outcomes from COVID-19. Often, the only health care they receive all year is from Proteus, researchers said.
Following the rapidly changing guidance throughout the pandemic has been challenging for this population, and researchers hope to provide scientifically accurate and culturally appropriate messaging about COVID-19 and the vaccine, Dukes said.
“There’s no unified infrastructure to ensure that these workers that are feeding the country stay safe and get vaccinated,” Corwin said.
Proteus is leading the effort to vaccinate the workers as they arrive.
Depending on the outcome of their research, Corwin said they hope to find ways to expand the research nationwide and reach migrant seasonal workers in other states.
“That would be to ultimate goal, to figure out ways to work with communities who often don’t have access to research opportunities and access to health care and figure out if there are ways to integrate technology and make that more accessible,” Dukes said.
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