A Conversation with Black Leaders about COVID-19 and CA’s Black Communities

A Conversation with Black Leaders about COVID-19 and CA’s Black Communities

S.E. Williams | Executive Editor

California’s Legislative Black Caucus (CLBC) Chair, Dr. Shirley Weber, recently teamed with California’s Surgeon General Dr. Nadine Burke Harris and hosted a virtual town hall to engage and inform the Black community and others around issues related to COVID-19.

The timing was right as the virus is, once again, exploding across the state and stay-at-home orders are converging with the imminent deployment of a vaccine.

COVID-19’s impact on Blacks is ominous. About 46,000 nationwide have already died from it.

Weber centered the discussion on “the  disparate impact the disease has had on the Black community,” and what can be done to improve their health outcomes.

“Health care needs have been met with great public and private partnerships and community programs designed to quickly meet the needs embroiled in an evolving health crisis,” Weber said. “Unfortunately, many in the Black community faced challenges with access to health care prior to the pandemic and have struggled to receive their fair share of these crucial services.”

As Blacks continue to face disproportionate rates of infection and mortality, “this serves as evidence there is a greater need for investment and oversight from the state to ensure the equitable distribution of services and resources becomes a policy priority. We want to identify other things that can be done to ensure resources, equity, and fairness as we go forward,” she offered. “We are generally hit the hardest because of all the structural weaknesses in our community.”

California Surgeon General Dr. Nadine Burke Harris

California Surgeon General Dr. Nadine Burke Harris

Burke Harris is revered nationally as an expert and forerunner in the field of Adverse Childhood Experiences and the impact of toxic stress later in life. She opened by acknowledging the challenges inherent in protecting Blacks (and other hard-hit communities) from the harms of COVID-19.

“We follow what the science is telling us,” she stressed. “We know COVID-19 is impacting everyone, but here in California we have seen the Black community especially harmed by the devastating economic and health impacts of the pandemic.”

Blacks are 6% of the state’s population and the bright spot regarding the virus is, they account for only 4.2% percent of its COVID-19 cases.

“So, either we are doing something right or we don’t have enough data,” She explained they are working hard to ensure they have complete data because if Blacks do have disproportionate rates of contracting the virus, they want to know about it to best protect the community.

But she cautioned, “Despite the fact we represent only 4.2% of cases in California, the mortality rate among African Americans is 7.4 %. This is because Blacks are more likely to be part of the essential workforce so it is harder to stay home, harder to isolate, and, possibly because if one tests positive, they may fear for their jobs or other similar reasons.”

Research also shows Blacks are more likely to have their positive tests in an emergency room or hospital, a sign their case may be more severe or farther along; yet research shows the earlier one gets tested, the better the outcome.

“Ensuring we are getting tested and tested early is absolutely  key.”

Also, Blacks likely have higher rates of chronic conditions.

“I know a lot of people are nervous about going to the doctor right now. One of the things we have seen across the state is health care visits for regular maintenance of chronic conditions is going down. We cannot afford to do this. We absolutely have to make sure we are taking care of every chronic condition, whatever it is. Keeping  those doctor’s appointments,” she explained, is important.

Blacks also contend with other types of adversity, she noted how childhood is a time when many Blacks experience stress, trauma or adversity that has a great impact on their long-term health and well-being. The higher the levels of stress, trauma, and/or adversity experienced, the greater the risk of developing chronic health conditions, like diabetes, heart disease, etc.

“All these conditions make it so that if we then develop COVID-19, we will tend to have a worse outcome. Our Black and Brown communities have higher rates of exposure to adverse childhood experiences like racism, and other traumas that can lead to poorer health outcomes.”

Many in these communities are also more likely to be essential, frontline workers, likely to be exposed to COVID and impacted by a fragile economy when restaurants can’t open, or a store has to close. The doctor stressed, the more people practice these guidelines  infection rates will lower and businesses can reopen and remain open.

The pandemic is widening disparities and in response California has implemented the first in the nation Health Equity Metric requiring more intensive efforts to prevent and mitigate the spread of COVID-19 among those disproportionately impacted and holding leaders accountable for monitoring impacts and creating plans to address them, testing and providing more supportive services.

“[O]ur equity metric is part of ensuring that our reopening in California happens equitably,” Burke Harris said.

She also reminded everyone there is “no cost” COVID-19 testing available. Click here for more information.

Dr. Oliver T. Brooks

Dr. Oliver T. Brooks

Dr. Brooks, the Chief Medical Officer with the Watts Healthcare Corporation and Immediate Past President, National Medical Association (NMA) began his commentary, “California is a microcosm of the country.”

Addressing COVID in the Black community from a national perspective, the NMA has formed a task force consisting of representatives from public health, clinicians who are practicing and retired, other industry professionals, vaccine experts and advocates. The group is meeting with those producing treatments and therapies for the virus including Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca. They want this information so when the vaccines/therapeutics are offered, it will have reviewed them and can give a specific endorsement or statement.

“Messaging is so important for the African American community, so we look at our role as being messengers to African American physicians so they can be messengers to the African American community,” Brooks said.

The NMA also wrote a manifesto calling on officials to protect, test and treat those who are incarcerated, and advocating for those minor charges to be released to avoid exposure to the virus in jails.

NMA has also focused internationally, “Ensuring that we supported African nations as they needed testing or therapeutics or whatever modalities they might need to treat their populations.” For now, however, Africa has not been hit hard, “Though, we really don’t know,” he admitted.

The NMA declared racism a public health threat and identified a set of best practices for improvement. Said Brooks, “[R]acism is a social construct, not a biological construct and it should be approached as such.”

Dr. Rodney Hood

Dr. Rodney Hood

Chair of the COVID-19 Equity Task Force, San Diego, according to Hood, early in the pandemic he called on other doctors in the community and formed the COVID Equity Task force which now includes members from faith-based organizations, multi-ethnic physicians, elected and public health and has grown to more than 100 participants.

Focused on an “equity principle” the group considered race and ethnic data about where folks lived in their communities and used the information to guide their efforts for the greatest impact.

Subsequently, the Board of Supervisors formed a regional COVID task force and appointed Hood chair.

“That group made recommendations to the Board that actually led to policy” he said explaining their first focus was setting up a COVID-19 test site. Soon a walk-up test site was opened nearby and shortly thereafter a local pastor started a food distribution site across from them. Today, it feeds about 3,000 people.

The group leaned in on equitable distribution of COVID-19 funds received by the county. Many groups came together and instead of just giving grants they focused on a community engagement program to reach specific minorities using taped messages about COVID-19 from people they trust including physicians, faith leaders, youth, etc. The grants also enabled the hiring of 12 Black community health workers and the establishment of blackcovidfactssd.org as a trusted source of information.

Shantay Davies-Balch

Director of the Fresno African-American COVID-19 Coalition, Davies-Balch’s COVID efforts began in March when her group engaged with the Black community in ways that were culturally relevant to them by focusing their initial outreach around maternal and child health.

“It evolved from there to forming the African American COVID Health coalition in partnership with an African American Male leadership group called ‘No One’ and developed a proposal to incorporate the voices of the Black community.”

The group approached COVID-19 through increased testing, addressing fears about the virus, increasing access to care and building a partnership with the immigrant refugee community.

They also used the opportunity to build out the Central Valley’s public health structure and hired over 30 Black health care workers who will be trusted ambassadors in their work.

“Our intention is to not only address the need, but to build out our public health structure, increasing testing, and partnering across races. We are stronger together,” she advised.

Andre’ Chapman

When Chapman, founder and CEO of Unity Care, launched the Bay area’s  COVID-19 Black initiative in March, information about the virus was neither consistent nor trusted among Blacks in his community.

“Many still didn’t believe it would happen to them, like AIDS was initially when many Blacks saw it as a White gay man’s disease, until Magic Johnson got it. Today, the fastest growing population catching it are African Americans.”

Chapman’s team held 20 focus groups to understand what Blacks felt about the virus, then created a communications strategy to educate the community. The goal was to create clear messages that dealt with the “fallacies” and provide information regarding how Black people can keep themselves safe.

“When we started this, about 1 in 2,500 African Americans died from COVID. Today, it is 1 in every 845. We created a platform for people to go to with historical context and resources,” he shared regarding COVID-19 Black. “You will hear stories from people that look like us who have lost someone.”

Visitors to the site can also hear from leaders and it includes a page of Black resources. Their priority is to put information into the hands of Black communities so they can understand COVID-19 in ways that are culturally sensitive from sources they trust.

Top row from left to right: left Andre’ Chapman, Shantay Davies-Balch, Dr. Shirley Weber.
Bottom row left to right: Dr. Oliver T. Brooks, Dr. Nadine Brooke Harris, Dr. Rodney Hood

The COVID-19 Vaccines

Drs. Brooks and Hood are advising the state on the review of vaccines, information around the plans for distribution and the Black community’s concerns for its safety, equity and transparency.

Because African Americans have the highest distrust about the vaccine—according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, nearly half, Dr. Hood noted, “We are going to make personal recommendations and NMA is going to make a public recommendation.”

All experts participating in the event coalesced around the importance of building trust in the efficacy of the vaccine and stressed—there is a lot of work that must be done. They also aligned regarding the need to release public statements giving their position on the vaccine(s)’ efficacy.

S.E. Williams is executive editor of the IE Voice and Black Voice News.

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