This is the second of two articles looking at a COVID-19 outbreak in the African American communities in Marion and Monongalia counties and what resulted from it.
Read the first article here.
In mid-March, congregations of seven African American churches gathered at a small church in Monongalia County for a celebration.
They suspected it would be the last such gathering for a while, as the COVID-19 pandemic was about to lead to a statewide stay-at-home order.
They didn’t realize the virus was already among them and many church members would become ill. Some of them would die.
Romelia Hodges, a leader in the Monongalia-Marion-Harrison counties African American community, tried to get help locally, but it took Sen. Joe Manchin’s involvement to obtain testing and contact tracing for her group.
“At this point, the community had become very distrustful of the health department. … Marion County created that distrust by not swiftly acting on the behalf of the African American community who had been stricken with this and needed their support,” Hodges said.
Pastors of the African American churches were also frustrated, she said. “They were feeling like they were dealing with systemic racism and it wasn’t going to get us anywhere.” But she got them to agree to send a list of names to Manchin’s office.
Hodges used the word “racism” more than once during the interview and in Facebook posts she made discussing the community outbreaks.
Asked about it, she declined to pin the term on a single person. “It was a public health breakdown from the top to the bottom.”
But she criticized Marion County Health Department Director Lloyd White in his role as county health director and in his role as president of the state Board of Sanitarians. (White did not respond to two invitations to be interviewed for this report.)
Although some cases were in Harrison County, Hodges said White did not share that information there.
“Lloyd had a responsibility to tell his health directors. It is your responsibility to get that information out to all your health directors,” Hodges said.
The county may have lacked the resources to get the community tested, she said, but White could have requested the National Guard come in — a suggestion she raised during a phone call. He didn’t launch an investigation or do contact tracing. They had to seek Manchin’s help.
Manchin, when asked about possible racism in the failures Hodges described, said “I hope to heck it wasn’t that.”
Many West Virginians live in poor neighborhoods, and they don’t have adequate health care or family physicians, Manchin said. They’re told to bring a health card and doctor’s recommendation to get a test.
“Poor people, black or white, don’t have that. And that’s what was happening. It’s ridiculous,” he said.
Did a lack of preparedness hamper the local health officials’ response?
“As much as we were supposed to be prepared, I don’t think anybody was,” Manchin said. “I will give Lloyd White all the credit in the world. He jumped right into the African American community and started testing.”
Delegate Danielle Walker, D-Monongalia, echoed many of Hodges’ thoughts. “Regardless of whose fault it was, it was black people who died,” she said.
There were so many hurdles for African Americans, she said: Not having the barriers broken to feel comfortable enough to get tested, getting tested late, dealing with underlying medical conditions, speaking to someone over the phone to see if they could get screened. “We can do so much better, I feel.”
Was it racism?
“It is systemic racism, it definitely is,” Walker said. Some were and are dismissed because of their underlying conditions — diabetes, hypertension, obesity — and just told to relax, eat better, exercise. As though they could afford a gym or have time to go if they’re working three jobs.
While trying to get the word out, Walker said, she was greeted with silence.
“What I am feeling is pure disgust. What I am feeling is pure disrespect. What I am feeling is hurt. People died.”
She fights for all people, she said. “When it was time for me to raise my voice for black people, everyone went tone deaf. To me and for me that is racism, that is discrimination.”
Intervention from the Capitol
During the first half of April, Delegate Barbara Evans Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, also got involved. On April 11, in consultation with Hodges, she, Walker and the other Mon delegates sent a letter to the governor asking for the racial data to be restored to the Department of Health and Human Resources coronavirus dashboard. It had been there for a day or so then taken down.
“She really was an angel … She knew she could use the power of her delegation to try to assist us,” Hodges said.
On a larger scale, with coordination from the Rev. Matthew Watts of Charleston, the African American community came up with what Hodges termed “three asks”: Designate African Americans as a vulnerable community; set up a minority task force; set up testing and get the data info back on the dashboard.
The vulnerable community status is important because African Americans make up a disproportionate amount of positive cases. African Americans are 3.6% of the state population but 7.2% of positives. In Marion County, 50% of the positive cases are African Americans; in Mon, it’s 10%.
Fleischauer worked with Hodges and the other Mon delegates to draft an email letter to the governor’s COVID-19 team, including COVID-19 Czar Clay Marsh, to explain the problem and relay the requests. The letter explained the background of the church services and what followed and described the distrust.
“Many African Americans in north-central West Virginia feel like they are in the middle of a community epidemic, but no one seems to be paying attention,” it said. “They have suffered a lifetime of small and large indignities and this feels like one more to some. Unlike at the nursing homes, the National Guard has not been called in despite the large number of positive cases and deaths. … [All this] has contributed to the suspicion and belief that once again West Virginians who are African American have been victims of discrimination.”
After receiving the letter, Marsh wrote back, “I’m on it,” Hodges said. At the next governor’s COVID-19 briefing, DHHR Secretary Bill Crouch announced that African Americans would be designated as a vulnerable community, and they would set up a task force.
“I was elated. I screamed for joy,” Hodges said. Not too long after, community testing was set up and the data was posted each day. And Hodges was named as a member of the task force.
Looking back and ahead
Looking back, Hodges said, “If you raise the African American community … then you’re raising the overall society itself. It’s always important to think about the greater good that you’re doing for people, combine diverse experiences together at the table, do as much as possible to effect change. It becomes a very beautiful thing when you’re able to do that.”
Marsh’s response, she said, was the state saying, “We hear you. We understand we might have made a mistake but we’re trying to right this wrong.” And opening up testing showed the community it had value and worth.
Walker is pleased but said more needs to be done. “I’m really excited about the advisory board.” At some point, it needs to be opened to allow the public to ask questions. All elected officials should be alerted to meetings and get notice of pop-up testing points in the counties, she said.
There are still communication hurdles to overcome, she said. While free testing is now offered, and is supposed to be mandatory, some urgent cares charge an up-front fee to see a doctor. People need a doctor’s note to return to work but don’t have a provider to sign one. “What am I going to do? I need to work,” Walker said.
She summed up, “We do better when we know better, and we must bring everyone to the round table in order to speak about these disparities.”