In its first round of free testing aimed at reaching the state’s minority populations, the West Virginia National Guard tested at least 2,388 people in four densely populated communities.
Members of a 12 member task force addressing racial disparities in COVID-19 cases say that with more notice they hope to generate an even larger turnout this weekend, when the guard again offers testing in another four counties.
The National Guard plans to provide more free testing to residents in Cabell, Kanawha, Marion and Monongalia counties on Friday, May 22, and Saturday, May 23. No proof of insurance is required.
Jill Upson directs the Herbert Henderson Office of Minority Affairs, a state agency focusing on minority issues, and she chairs the commission. She said Monday she plans to announce specific testing site addresses on Tuesday.
The West Virginia National Guard tested 1,620 people in Berkeley and Jefferson counties in the Eastern Panhandle from May 15 to May 16, according to preliminary remarks from Secretary Bill Crouch with the state Department of Health and Human Resources during a virtual press conference on Monday. The Guard also tested 768 people in Mercer and Raleigh counties in southern West Virginia.
Crouch reported 33.8 percent of the people tested in Raleigh County on Friday were black, as were 36.2 percent of those tested the same day in Mercer County. Later, DHHR spokesperson Allison Adler clarified this data is incomplete and preliminary, as the agency continues to receive more data from the weekend.
During the advisory commission’s first meeting on May 11, state epidemiologist Sarah Sanders said 7.3 percent of the state’s positive cases are from the African American community, a group that, according to 2018 Census data, only accounted for 4.2 percent of the state’s total population.
Several commissioners from the advisory group said Monday they felt the state National Guard announced the locations too late in the week to give people enough time to attend.
The Guard didn’t announce the counties until Thursday, and even then it didn’t have specific locations yet.
“Better communication is key,” said Del. Sean Hornbuckle, D-Cabell, one commissioner. “If you’re going to have something on a Saturday, I think it’s highly inappropriate to let them know on a Thursday.”
In the Eastern Panhandle, state Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, said locally elected officials, like mayors, later reached out to her about the lack of coordination.
“I’m not saying we need their permission, necessarily, but it makes sense to include them,” Rucker said. “Because they’ll know they’re communities in a way the national guard can’t.”
With more notice this time around, commission members serving the upcoming testing counties say they are eager to spread the word.
“And the best way to do that is to educate people,” said Romelia Hodges, a Marion County resident and another commissioner. “It’s to let them know this is free. And to be transparent with them: you are going to need an ID. You are going to need a proof of residency.”
Hodges spoke to the Charleston Gazette-Mail about an outbreak of coronavirus that affected her community, killing two people. According to DHHR data Monday afternoon, half of Marion County’s 48 cases were black residents, which only accounted for three percent of the county’s population in population estimates from the 2018 census.
“We were pretty much looked at as disposable at that point in time,” Hodges said. “We were losing lives, and no one on the state level was paying attention to us. There was a lot of heartache and a lot of pain that was happening in the African American community.”
Hodges said she is stressing testing as a “civic duty” to her neighbors and others in her community who might be asymptomatic, to mitigate further spread of the coronavirus.
In Charleston, Rev. James Patterson, also on the commission, said as the group continues to meet twice a week, and as more testing is made available to populations with a need, he expects the process will continue to evolve.
He said local health organizations are in the process of partnering with more churches in Charleston, to offer similarly free, accessible testing. After the pandemic, he said he hopes the state will continue tackling the issues that place African Americans and other minority groups at a disadvantage in public health crises.
“What we’re really dealing with is the social determinants of health,” Patterson said. “Those are the real factors that have produced this particular disparity, and they will continue to produce disparities even after this pandemic is over. We’re still going to have the disparities we have now.”
The COVID-19 Advisory Commission on African American Disparities meets virtually with state health officials on Tuesdays and Fridays at 7:30 a.m., according to Upson.
Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.