A woman holds a mask to her face while a sign states there is no coronavirus testing available at the CVS drugstore in downtown Portland on Tuesday Dec. 8, 2020. A federal grant worth nearly $1 million will help increase testing access for immigrants, low-income residents and people experiencing homelessness in southern Maine. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — Local health organizations in Portland will receive nearly $1 million in federal funds to study COVID-19 testing hesitancy among Maine’s populations of immigrants, low-income residents and people experiencing homelessness.

The National Institutes of Health, a federal public health agency, announced Monday it would award $940,140 to MaineHealth, a network of 16 healthcare providers in Maine and New Hampshire.

The plan is to confidentially interview people in Greater Portland on their views, fears and experiences with COVID-19 testing as a way of busting myths about COVID testing and building trust with the medical community. The grant will also result in three new walk-up COVID-19 testing sites in Portland by late 2021.

“We’re going to do a lot of listening,” said Dr. Kathleen Fairfield, a physician-scientist at Maine Medical Center’s international clinic and the Maine Medical Center Research Institute, who will lead the study with colleague Dr. Elizabeth Jacobs.

As part of the study, the research team will follow 150 people from Greater Portland’s immigrant, low-income and homeless populations for one year to track whether the effort affects their views on testing.

One obstacle that has come between people and their willingness to test for the virus is that many are hourly workers who can’t afford to miss time should they test positive, Fairfield said.

While grant money will only go toward increasing accessibility to tests, Fairfield said that a “variety of strategies” are necessary to combat the pandemic, including masking and equitable access to testing and vaccination.

“A lot of those folks don’t have cars, so they can’t go to a drive-up site,” Fairfield said. “They might not have internet access or even a phone [to make an appointment online], and they need language support.”

The effort would also help those who test positive know how to quarantine safely at home among their families should they test positive for the virus.

The news comes as 214 Mainers were hospitalized with COVID-19 on Monday, a record high in the state since the pandemic began.

Several dozen clients and staff at Portland’s city-run Oxford Street homeless shelter tested positive for the coronavirus   in an outbreak last winter. The city has partnered with state agencies to shelter and quarantine vulnerable people in area hotels when they exceed capacities of its shelter system.

MaineHealth has partnered with the nonprofits Preble Street, a Portland-based resource center that helps low-income and unhoused people, Greater Portland Health and ProsperityME, which provides financial education to immigrant Mainers.

Preble Street Executive Director Mark Swann said he was “thrilled” to partner with MaineHealth on the effort, saying “low-barrier, easily accessible testing services” will improve the safety of the city’s shelter system.

“COVID has created yet another fear and complication in the lives of our unhoused neighbors,” Swann said.

The Maine Medical Center Research Institute and city staff will work with ProsperityME to study cultural, behavioral and economic factors impacting people’s decision-making about testing.

“ProsperityME looks forward to this opportunity to help make our communities healthier and to connect improved health with economic benefits,” said Claude Rwaganje, Executive Director of ProsperityME.

The National Institutes of Health grant is part of the agency’s Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics-Underserved Populations program, which has funded dozens of research initiatives around COVID-19 testing access in the U.S. since July of 2020.