New W.Va. Group Explores How COVID-19 Disproportionately Impacts African American Communities

May 11, 2020

State health officials report COVID-19 is disproportionately impacting West Virginia's African American community. A statewide commission on African American disparities during the COVID-19 crisis met for the first time on Monday to review the data.

According to state epidemiologist Sarah Sanders, 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.

Roughly 3.5 percent of the state’s population has been tested, according to data from the state Department of Health and Human Resources Monday morning and the 2018 Census.

Nearly 80 percent of black West Virginians who have tested positive for COVID-19 are symptomatic, compared to only 68 percent of COVID-19 positive people who are white, Sanders said. Many more African American cases have resulted in hospitalization than white. 

Reverend James Patterson, one of 12 members on the newly-developed task force featuring religious leaders, community leaders, state legislators and medical professionals, said these numbers merit a two-pronged approach.

“One is programmatic implementation,” Patterson said, involving immediate tools like testing and treatment. “But the other challenge is, what I think is a policy that has to be put in place to address the social determinants of health.”

He pointed out many black communities in West Virginia are dealing with limited access to health care. These longstanding hindrances not only put them at a disadvantage during the COVID-19 crisis, but for most public health problems that still will be around after the coronavirus.

“This is this pandemic, but we live in a constant pandemic,” Patterson said. “Whenever anything happens out of the ordinary, or the just ordinary living for a lot of people of color, is a pandemic situation.”

State officials have been criticized for a slow response to African American concerns in this pandemic. Earlier in May, the Charleston Gazette-Mail reported on a mostly black outbreak in Fairmont, Marion County, resulting from a lack of education about the coronavirus from state officials. 

“We have a public health system in West Virginia that really wasn’t ready for this kind of situation,” Secretary Bill Crouch from the state Department of Health and Human Resources said of the coronavirus Monday morning.

Crouch said the DHHR is moving around staff and strategizing the best use of its resources to target areas with the most need for education and treatment. 

The West Virginia National Guard shared plans for mobile testing in vulnerable, minority and high population density areas.

According to Lt. Col. Tanya McGonegal, the guard is still waiting on approval, but they hope to begin implementing their plan as early as this Friday in Raleigh or Mercer Counties.

So far, McGonegal said roughly 570 soldiers are already helping support the state DHHR with initial screening efforts and testing throughout the state. From mobile testing vehicles, McGonegal said the state National Guard has been able to test up to 150 people in an hour.

This testing will be free and voluntary, to help those without insurance have access to primary care.

Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.