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Black Mississippians Are Being Hit Especially Hard By The Coronavirus

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Before the coronavirus, things were turning around for Shalondra Rollins, a 38-year-old mother of two living in Jackson, Miss. After years of low-wage jobs, she was moving towards a rewarding career in education. Her children were doing well. She was engaged to marry a man she loved. But on April 4, Rollins tested positive for COVID-19. She died three days later.

Rollins is one of the many African Americans to die from COVID-19 in Mississippi. Anna Wolfe is an investigative reporter with Mississippi Today. She says the story of Shalondra Rollins may help to explain why black Mississippians have been hit much harder by the pandemic than anyone else. Anna Wolfe joins me now. Welcome.

ANNA WOLFE: Thanks so much for having me.

KELLY: So I want to let you tell us the story of Shalondra Rollins, but let's start by setting the stage. Just give me a sense of how many African Americans have died from COVID-19 in Mississippi and how that compares to the general population.

WOLFE: African Americans make up about 40% of the population in Mississippi, but they account for more than 60% of deaths related to COVID.

KELLY: And I have seen state officials attributing some of that to higher rates of underlying conditions - heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure. And it is true that African Americans in Mississippi are more likely to have some of those underlying conditions. But your reporting shows that what is playing out with COVID-19 is more complicated. Explain.

WOLFE: Sure. So Shalondra did have diabetes, which put her at greater risk of contracting and dying from COVID-19. But she was also more susceptible because of some of these other disadvantages in the black community - you know, having fewer economic opportunities, poorer access to health care and poorer quality of care when they do receive it. And, you know, these are the same reasons that black folks are having higher rates of diabetes and hypertension and some of these other diseases that put them at greater risk.

KELLY: OK. Well, tell us a little bit about Shalondra Rollins and how those factors were playing out for her even before she got sick.

WOLFE: She was going back to school to get a better-paying job, you know, trying to take advantage of those economic opportunities. But even after she got her associate's degree in 2018 in early childhood education, she got a job in that field. But assistant teachers in Mississippi make about $13,000 to start, which is pretty well going to put any family in poverty.

KELLY: So take us to the moment when she realized she might be sick.

WOLFE: So she was sick for a while before she got a test for COVID-19. And, you know, they think that she probably got it from a friend of hers that had been travelling prior. And she went into the doctor for, you know, flu-like symptoms, and he basically gave her some antibiotics and sent her home. And she didn't get a test until her friend eventually got a test and tested positive. At that point, she'd probably been infected for about three weeks. And at that time, you know, schools were closed, so she was able to stay home and just kind of rest. And then three days later, she woke up feeling winded walking from room to room. She had trouble kind of catching her breath, and she ended up collapsing in the shower.

KELLY: And then what happened? They called an ambulance?

WOLFE: Yeah. So they called an ambulance. And, you know, when the family recounts on what happened, they really stress the slow response from the ambulance service.

KELLY: So just to be clear, she - this all unfolded very quickly. When she got to the hospital, she died - what? - within an hour, before she had even gotten in and gotten treated for this.

WOLFE: Yeah, exactly. She was still waiting for a room by the time that her heart stopped.

KELLY: What else does her family say about this - I mean, the quality of care, starting with how long it took to get tested, how long it took to get a diagnosis and then what they perceive as a lack of urgency about taking care of her on the day when she needed urgent care?

WOLFE: You know, they've experienced this with the health care system their whole lives. Cassandra, the mother, she told me several times she's just kind of numb moving through this. And even, you know, trying to get health care for her children, it's just very triggering for them right now.

KELLY: Anna, thank you.

WOLFE: Thank you so much.

KELLY: Anna Wolfe is an investigative reporter for Mississippi Today and covers poverty. She's been telling us about Shalondra Rollins, who died April 7 of COVID-19. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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