By Savanna Shriver
In March 2020, Tiffany Samuels checked her Facebook page and saw a post by Romelia Hodges, who posted about a COVID-19 outbreak in a Black church she attended, Friendship Baptist in Everettville.
At the time, the state had not reported any COVID-19 cases, so there were no restrictions and most residents did not see the virus as a threat. There was little knowledge and access to COVID-19 testing.
Samuels said when she finished reading the post, she was so disturbed, she couldn’t stop thinking about it for days and couldn’t sleep. Samuels, who is director of development for West Virginia University’s School of Nursing and Public Health, called Hodges and asked what she could do to help. Hodges said her entire family had become ill and her husband and son were not doing well.
She said Hodges told her, “I will send you everything I have. I need help.”
The two began trying to contact trace who had attended the church service by making lists of everyone Hodges could remember and looking through pictures. Samuels said there were nearly 150 people in the approximately 600-foot, space. That required tests for all, which was nearly all the tests available in West Virginia at the time.
“Needless to say, it didn’t happen initially,” Samuels said.
They reached out to Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and state Delegate Danielle Walker, D-Monongalia, who were able to help get tests to the church, but in the meantime, people were found passed out in their homes one after another. So Samuels said it was essential to get the word out about the spread.
By May 2020, state leaders realized they needed to do something about the discrepancy in care and information for minority communities, and the COVID-19 Advisory Commission on African American Disparities was created. Both Hodges and Samuels are members along with 10 other community leaders from around the state.
As of May 4, according to the Department of Health and Human Resources, nearly 40% of West Virginians had at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose, and 33% were fully vaccinated. Of the demographic statistics that have been recorded, 2.59% of those who have received at least one shot, were Black, though Black people make up 3.6% of the state’s total population. of those vaccinated, 7.86% are listed as “unknown” with regard to race.
The Commission meets online weekly for Black people to voice their concerns and feel heard. Samuels said many are worried about job security. If they contract COVID-19 and can’t work they might lose their jobs, and unemployment will not be enough to cover expenses. She said Jill Upson, executive director and taskforce chair, brought an unemployment officer to meetings to answer questions.
So far, there have been vaccination clinics focusing on members of the Black community in Charleston, Fairmont and Morgantown. The Rev. Matthew Watts, pastor of Grace Bible Church and community leader in Charleston, is a member of the Minority Health Taskforce, which started during the pandemic as a way to help amplify Black and minority issues. Watts said while he has not excluded any races, for months he helped push word-of-mouth information about testing and vaccines in the church and his community.
West Virginia’s vaccination rollout was based on age, which leaders of the Black community suggested was a faulty criterion based on differences in life expectancy and basic health care between races.
Since Black people are more likely to die 5-10 years earlier on average than white people and are more likely to still be working past their 60s, Watts said the COVID-19 vaccine should have been given to account for those disparities.
Lowering the age limit for Black people, including all frontline workers regardless of age and anyone with immune deficiency, and giving grants to the Black community were ways to help combat these disparities, Walker said.
“So there’s a lot of things, but if you give the vaccines to the Black community, we’ll make sure that they get vaccinated,” Walker said.
She said she was confused when elders in the Black community, who met the vaccine criteria, were telling her they had not been contacted to set up a meeting months after vaccine clinics became open to people 65 or older.
Distrust for science within Black communities is why some Black people do not want to get the COVID-19 vaccine. A study by the Kaiser Foundation found that 49% of African Americans would not take a vaccine even when deemed safe by scientists and offered to everyone at no cost. The poll was conducted with 1,769 adults, 777 of whom were Black, between August and September 2020.
Samuels said there is a fear for many Black individuals.
“All my life growing up, all I’ve ever known, I remember my elders saying if you go to the hospital you’ll die. Regardless of what you have, if you go into the hospital, you’ll die,” she said.
Watts said many of the issues Black people encountered while trying to get a COVID-19 vaccine are rooted in historical discrimination, maginalization and disenvestment in Black people, which have also compromised Black peoples’ health over time.
“COVID-19 has shown how vulnerable Black Americans and some other minorities are to diseases,” he said.
Studies by the Mayo Clinic and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that Black people are more likely to contract, be hospitalized and die from COVID-19 than white people and other minorities. According to Dr. Anthony Faucci, chief medical advisor to President Joe Biden, Black people are more likely to have underlying health conditions like asthma, cancer and diabetes and less likely to receive treatment.
Anitra Hamilton, a minister at Agape Life Church in Fairmont and a nurse at WVU Hospitals, has seen this first hand.
“In African American culture most people have a specialist but not a primary care physician,” Hamilton said. She said patients can see a primary care physician for any issue and regular check ups, but a specialist treats specific issues after they occur. A 2019 study from JAMA Internal Medicine found patients with a PCP received more high-value care.
Chllenefyg Butler, 38, of Fairmont, said she will not get the vaccine and didn’t personally know anyone who had.
“Black people don’t want the shot because they don’t trust the government. The government hasn’t been for us, ever,” Butler said.
She said there are legitimate reasons a Black person would be leery of getting the COVID-19 vaccine that stem from mistreatment.
At Agape Life Ministries in Fairmont, Pastors Leo and Regina Riley knew they needed to do their part to help overcome the reservations among their community.
“If there’s any chance of the shot helping, we want to take it,” Leo said. The couple said they have been having church services online since August, and in those Zoom meetings, they have helped church members get information about COVID-19 testing, vaccine clinics and general COVID-19 questions. When they do have in-person services, they are masked and socially distanced.
The disparities coalition has tried to assemble Black vaccination and testing teams to make the experience more comfortable.
“Having someone that looks and, even though it might seem silly, talks like you can be much less intimidating,” Samuels said.
She also said for different age groups, different methods of getting the word out work better than others. At first, they called people. Since they were older, they responded well to it. Now, Facebook works, but she is thinking of ways to appeal to the younger generations better.
She and Hodges walk around Fairmont to brainstorm ideas, check in on people and hand out flyers with COVID information.
Samuels said it has been challenging for everyone, and, until recently, she said she had felt numb. While she and Hodges tried to make lists of the elderly for priority vaccinations and contact tracing purposes, they found many of them had died.
“But after that first vaccination event, where we had 100 of our elders there, I came home and I cried like a baby,” Samuels said.
“That was the first time that I allowed myself to truly decompress and truly feel. So now I can deal with the emotions of it because I know relief is on the way, and I have some comfort in knowing that COVID-19 will not completely destroy my entire community,” Samuels said.
Savanna Shriver is a student in the WVU Reed College of Media. This article was written as part of the multimedia storytelling capstone class and offered to The Dominion Post for publication.