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See the latest news and updates about COVID-19 and its impact on the Charlotte region, the Carolinas and beyond.

Panelists Critique Mecklenburg's Response To Virus In Black Community

The disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on the African American community is getting attention and action in Mecklenburg County. But panelists at an online forum Tuesday night say much remains to be done.

Dr. Jerome Williams Jr., a Novant Health executive, laid out the problem: "In layman’s terminology, African Americans are dying at a higher percentage and a higher rate due to COVID-19 virus."

That’s true across the country and in Mecklenburg County. The Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts + Culture convened a YouTube forum Tuesday to talk about why – and what can be done.

Williams noted that African Americans also suffer disproportionately from chronic diseases that make the coronavirus especially deadly.

"We’re referring to high blood pressure, diabetes, heart failure, lung disease," he said.

And those problems, he said, are often linked to issues like poverty and lack of access to housing and health care.

"The solutions to some of those challenges require deep, trusted partnerships with faith-based organizations, with county leadership, with grassroots organizations," Williams said.

The Rev. Ricky Woods, senior minister at First Baptist Church-West, was there to speak for the faith community. He was part of a group of clergy that wrote county officials a letter demanding better response to the crisis. Not long ago, he gave the county a D-minusfor its response to the pandemic.

Since then, the two biggest health care providers in the area have started mobile testing centers in African American neighborhoods. That was one of the key demands from the clergy group, said online panel moderator Glenn Burkins.

"Is that battle over?" Burkins asked. "Do you declare victory and go home?"

Absolutely not, Woods said.

"We have to now encourage people to go out to get screened and tested," he said. "As you know there’s always and has been for some time now a general suspicion in the African American community of health professionals."

Woods said that distrust – and the mistreatment that causes it – are a big part of the problem. He talked about his father’s experience with a doctor who downplayed what turned out to be terminal cancer. More than 500 people watched the YouTube livestream, and judging from comments that was a theme that resonated with many of them.

Woods said he doesn’t have evidence, but he believes African Americans may also be suffering more from the virus because many work in service jobs that expose them.

"Almost every time I go into the grocery store a disproportionate number of those persons working at the cash registers, at any grocery store I go into, are African American," Woods said.

County Manager Dena Diorio said she appreciates the points Woods and other clergy made.  The county recently released more demographic data on people who have died from COVID-19.

But Diorio said it’s impossible to collect good data on who’s being tested because so many different groups are doing the tests. All report positive results to the county, she said, but many don’t report negative tests.

"So we’ll never know how many people got tested in this community, and we’ll never know the full demographics of the people who were tested in this community," she said.

Diorio and Williams said there are important questions they can’t answer: Why does the Latino community seem to be less hard-hit than African Americans? Could COVID-19 account for unexplained illness that struck before it was officially recognized?

Burkins asked Diorio about large gatherings in other cities that caused COVID-19 outbreaks.

"There’s no specific event, like a funeral or, like in Louisiana with Mardi Gras where they were able to trace it there, we don’t have anything that we can trace specifically in Mecklenburg County to demonstrate why we have such an impact in the African American community," Diorio said.

Diorio said the county is preparing a communication push to target African American communities and others at risk, helping them understand symptoms, safety measures and how to get tested.

And she said the need remains strong. Data presented earlier Tuesday projects that the county’s infection peak will come somewhere between mid-May and early June.

Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.