Communities advocate for Black health during COVID-19 crisis

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By RI’AN JACKSON
Capital News Service

LANSING — Michigan reports that African Americans make up at least 22% of confirmed COVID-19 cases and at least 38% of deathsbut are only 14.1% of the state’s population.

That’s consistent nationwide. One in every 920 Black Americans have died from COVID-19 compared with 1 in every 1,840 white Americans, according to APM Research Lab, an organization that provides original research to the public.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that discrimination, lack of access to health care and income and education gaps put racial minorities at a higher risk of contracting and dying from the virus.

To fix the problem, the CDC encourages community organizations, employers and others to provide resources for vulnerable communities.

The Council on Black Health, a Philadelphia nonprofit organization that promotes Black health, has organized several initiatives to minimize health inequalities in the Black community. These include hosting roundtable discussions with experts and developing the Environments Supporting Healthy Eating Index — a standardized scoring tool that ranks areas by their support for healthy eating.

Food inequities have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Politico reported that Black and Hispanic households with children are now almost twice as likely to be struggling with food than white households with children. This is because Black Americans are facing more job losses. Data from ProPublica shows that in June, 15% of Black Americans were unemployed compared to 9% of White Americans.

The Environments Supporting Healthy Eating Index aims to support those who experience food insecurity by initiating change in food policies that could help make healthier food more accessible in low-income households. It takes information such as community nutrition and food prices and ranks communities across the nation with a numerical score. The data is available on the Council on Black Health’s website.

“We’re trying to craft a narrative for Black health,” said Jameta Barlow, the communications leader of the Council on Black Health. “There’s so many people telling us what to do. And so, I think a lot of what we’re doing now is making sure that people understand the science and health and what it means in their life.”

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has also worked to make COVID-19 testing more accessible to communities of color throughout Michigan.

The agency has set up 22 neighborhood testing sites around the state, said Brenda Jegede, manager of the department’s Office of Equity and Minority Health.

And the agency used data like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Social Vulnerability Index — a tool that identifies communities most likely to need support before, during and after a public health emergency — to pinpoint appropriate locations for these sites.

Each site offers no-cost, saliva-based testing of COVID-19. They are also located to make communities of color feel comfortable with most of them at churches or educational institutions, Jegede said.

“Many populations of color, historically, have had concerns with access to care,” she said. “And some of that has to do with receiving culturally and linguistically appropriate services.”

The sites provide testing for all ages. Patients are not required to show ID and do not need to have symptoms to receive testing. Workers hired at the sites are given cultural and linguistic competence training. Language translation services as well as services for the deaf and blind are also available.

 “When people have the information in front of them, they can use very logical, common-sense decisions when they go out,” said Mario Morrow, who is part of a Michigan team created to help prevent COVID-19 from spreading in urban areas.

Morrow, president of the Southfield-based Mario Morrow and Associates public relations firm, helped build an arsenal of influencers, stakeholders and organizations to dispel myths about the virus and promote healthy habits like wearing face masks to communities of color. These efforts included social media posts, op-eds for local newspapers and flyers.

And the organization’s efforts have worked to increase testing throughout Michigan. The agency helped increase the number of people in Michigan being tested from around 7,500 per day in April to 30,000, Jegede said.

The agency is also supporting other organizations that are providing pandemic-related resources. The Rapid Response Initiative, which will begin sometime between October and December, will provide funding to community-driven projects that address racial disparities throughout the state, including food and housing insecurities.

“We are very proud of our residents and our stakeholders and our partners who have helped us,” said Morrow. “Detroit had gotten hit really hard. And you could tell our messaging and communications were working because people were paying attention.”