By DIANE XAVIER
The Dallas Examiner
African Americans are twice as likely to have an increased risk from getting COVID-19 and dying from the virus compared to White, Non-Hispanic persons, according to data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
In Dallas County, recent data showed that zip codes with high African American populations such as 75216 initially had the highest positive cases of COVID-19.
As a result of this data, Dallas City Council member Casey Thomas of District 3 formed the African American Task Force for COVID-19 in July to address this issue and help reduce the spread of the virus.
Thomas, who serves as the chairman for the task force, also serves as the chair of the Ad Hoc Committee for COVID-19 Recovery and Response.
“We see the disparities as it relates to those who tested positive for COVID- 19, and I was able to participate with the Latino COVID task force and saw how valuable it was for a coordinated response for the Latino community and saw the need to do the same thing for the African American community,” Thomas said.
“We decided we would follow the strategy laid out by Dr. Kelvin Baggett, COVID Czar for the city of Dallas, and structure it around issues as it relates to the African American community,” Thomas said. “The goal is to reduce COVID by setting up more testing sites in the areas near predominantly Black communities, mostly churches or shopping centers and get information out door to door and utilize the Black press to get information out on how to stay safe from COVID-19 by following the CDC guidelines for being safe from COVID-19.”
Baggett, a health care executive and physician who was appointed as the City of Dallas Health and Healthcare Access Czar for COVID-19 by Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson in May, is responsible for assessing and leading the effort to increase testing, contact tracing and promote health measures – especially in underserved communities of the city.
“My primary goal was to make sure that we were minimizing suffering and harm during COVID-19 during this obviously very unique and unprecedented pandemic with a clear objective to determine if there was disproportionality or inequitability as it relates to COVID-19 within our community,” he said. “If we go back to May, the data began to surface that there was a disproportionate impact on certain communities, specifically communities of color, Black and Brown in terms of rate of COVID infections as well as the severity of COVID-19 infections and Mayor Johnson asked me to look at that very closely to make sure that if we were seeing such disparities that we were taking action to hopefully mitigate the progression.”
Baggett stated that the data showed certain communities were impacted more than others.
“The data has demonstrated that there is a disproportionate impact on the representation on the population largely for those in the Hispanic community,” he said. “If you look at the working population, 80% or so of the number of hospitalizations that have been admitted are those of potential workers. What I can also say is the data is not complete as we want it to be as far as some of the demographics such as race, age, gender and otherwise.
“We also want to let you know that there is under testing for a variety of reasons in various aspects of our community as well those reasons include continued rollout of testing in those communities but also people’s recognition of the risks when they should proceed with testing and other factors. Based upon all that we also can extrapolate that perhaps there is a disproportionate impact on African American communities as well given that high risk profile of other underlying conditions and other health histories and some of the other factors including their typical employment as well but we don’t have the data yet to confirm it.”
The data comes from multiple sources, according to Baggett.
“We are getting data from the testing that is being performed and protected health information, so it is only being disclosed or shared in a matter that doesn’t compromise anyone’s identity,” he continued. “We are getting data from contact tracing that is being performed. And there is protected data that gives us some insight. There is mapping that we are doing, and there are a lot of different data sources such as regional, local, state and national that are being combined to create a full picture of what is going on related to this particular pandemic.”
Baggett explained the strategies in place to help eliminate the spread of COVID-19, especially in certain zip codes like 75216 that have a high African American population.
“First off, the promotion of social behavior,” Baggett said. “So, continuing to promote the importance of physical distancing, masks wearing and face covering and hand hygiene. Those are three keys that have been demonstrated to effectively reduce the spread of the virus. The second is that we also embarked on the neighborhood testing strategies so to what we call some of the larger based community testing sites we had 500 to 1,000 tests available to be administered during any given day. We have begun to either support or provide testing amongst the highest risk geographies based on a variety of data so we are doing that as we are continuing to make people aware of the various resources available to them as we all navigate this challenging time.”
Baggett said the strategies for the African American Task Force will consist of communications, outreach and engaging influential leaders within the community to respect what is already trusted.
“Looking at existing testing not just testing for the city or county but also for testing that is available and how accessible that testing is,” he said. So is it in walking distance or within reasonable driving distance and what that means and also looking at ways to expand that as well as making people aware of some of the social support and resources available to support those that need food or masks or support with quarantining in isolation as well that is what the task force consists of and is comprised of leaders in health care and business and community organizations and government.”
The role the task force will play in executing the strategy to address COVID-19 is diverse.
“We are engaged and supporting and we are leveraging not only our knowledge base but also any access to resources that are also available to us that would help us to support these efforts so I would say it is a coordinated community effort to address COVID-19 not only in the African American community but we are doing that in other communities as well and we think that it is important that we look at some of the considerations, the nuances and needs of not just a general lens but something that allows us to look at something that is appropriate for that situation or that environment,” Baggett said.
The end goal of the task force is to lower the number of COVID-19 cases, according to Baggett.
“Our overall goal is to obviously make sure that we are doing everything that we can to reach out to reduce the spread of the rate of infection as well as hospitalizations as well as harm associated with COVID-19,” Baggett said. “I would like to say that I would like to give you specific numbers as it relates to that but ultimately there are no other numbers related to those things but we would like to be zero numbers of those things, no infections we would like to be no hospitalizations, we would like there to be no deaths, but it is unlikely realistic given the nature of this virus, but our ambitions is to do possibly everything that we can to try toward those results.”
He explained they will measure the success of the task force on how well they reach the community.
“We are looking for ways to improve on what testing do we have and is that testing being utilized, and what are we seeing in terms of the number of cases like going up or down? What are we seeing in terms of the number of hospitalizations going up or down, and we are making every reasonable effort to make continued improvement,” he said.
Underlying health issues plays a major factor on the contributions of higher rates of COVID-19 among people of the African American community.
“I think there are issues of other health conditions and diseases and the burdens, the higher degrees that exist within especially if you are speaking to the African American community,” Baggett said. Other conditions such as heart disease, respiratory disease, cancer, diabetes, end stage renal disease that would seem to increase the risk of COVID-19. The second piece is environmental exposure where you live, work and play. We know that essential workers are more likely to come in contact with COVID-19, so you have that and then we have other long standing issues of capacity to provide care, what are the access points to care.”
Baggett had this advice for people to stay safe from COVID-19.
“Stay home when and if you can,” he said. “If not and if you need to go out make every attempt to protect yourself and others and to maintain 6-feet of physical distance to wearing a mask and practice hand hygiene and to monitor yourself and others that you have come into contact with and seek testing and treatment if necessary.”
Rev. Richie Butler, senior pastor of Saint Luke “Community” United Methodist Church is also a member of the task force. He said he became proactive about fighting COVID-19 in his community once he first heard about the virus.
“First and foremost, probably in mid early March we recognized that this virus was going to impact our community disproportionately, so we launched an initiative called ‘We Need to Survive,’” Butler said. “We reached out to the Black media and reached out to Black churches and in an effort to just educate and to encourage our people to take this virus seriously and this was probably two weeks before there was any national media coverage around the fact that it was in fact disproportionately impacting our community. We helped in some regards to help get the word out and make sure that our people were taking it seriously and not hanging out, not having parties, but really sheltering in place and doing all the things the CDC guidelines shared you can avoid getting infected by the virus. So we did that and then realized that this virus would be with us until there was a vaccine and it was disproportionately impacting us now, and that will continue to be the case. And that is when we transitioned from a campaign into an initiative and really began to focus on three areas.
Those areas included testing.
“We really wanted to accelerate testing because at the time we were not getting testing especially in our communities because we have food deserts, and we have testing deserts so we wanted to make sure that we bought testing to our communities. The other piece is to provide supplies whether it is small businesses in the community that if people indeed needed supplies like masks, we want to be in a position to help provide that .The third area of focus was education. As part of that education we recognized that what this virus exposed was that not just that how we are disproportionately impacted, but that the need to bring about a change in the area of health care service, delivery and results in our community. We believe that the testing is a bridge to addressing the much larger issue of health care inequity and disparity. Getting back to the testing we ended up partnering with Catalyst Health Network, they are a physician network of over 1,000 physicians. They bring and help about 1.5 million lives that they serve, and so when you think about it, it was the church and so the spiritual healer of our community and the physical healer of our community coming together to address the issue of the lack of testing.
Butler, who founded Project Unity, teamed up with other churches in the area to help get residents tested for free for COVID-19.
Those locations include Cochran Chapel on Midway Road in Dallas, Hamilton Park United Methodist Church, Disciple Center Community Church in DeSoto, Friendship West Campus and Church and Saint Luke Community United Methodist Church.
“As long as there is a virus, we are in agreement that testing is needed,” Butler said. “If there is a need we want to be able to supply the need for our community.”