In some West Virginia counties, including Jefferson, COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on minority communities.

African-Americans represent 6.4 percent of the population in Jefferson County and yet make up nearly 12 percent of the cases.

In neighboring Berkeley County, African-Americans make up 7.8 percent of the population and account for 14 percent of the cases.

This week, the state’s newly created COVID-19 Advisory Commission on African American Disparities, which includes as a member, State Sen. Patricia Rucker (R) — Jefferson, held its first meeting.

The state finally got to moving on the issue last week after some pressure from the state’s NAACP chapters and a word or two from a U.S. Senator.

The NAACP chapters throughout the state have been working to sound an alarm in the past weeks and finally saw movement last week, George Rutherford, the president of the Jefferson County branch of the NAACP, explained.

The vice president of the Charleston branch of the NAACP,  the Rev. Matthew J. Watts, put together a conference call with state leaders and U.S. Senator Joe Manchin, which helped clear the log jam.

“The next day Senator Manchin assisted in having Dr. Clay Marsh, the Coronavirus State Czar, join in a telephone conference call with Black leaders from across the state,” Rutherford said.

Rutherford added that the end result was a commitment from state leaders to increase testing and outreach to African-American communities throughout the state.  

Other actions, along with the task force noted above, will include:

• Coronavirus testing (random and targeted) and contact tracing be expanded in the Black community

• A negotiated amount of the $1.5 billion Federal dollars allocated to West Virginia to fight the coronavirus be specifically directed to Black communities for testing and treating COVID-19.

Getting a clearer picture

Dr. Terrence Reidy, the Eastern Panhandle’s chief health officer, said that partnering with the NAACP and other organizations to collect more detailed and accurate background information on the people tested for coronavirus infections will be important. Right now, the information health officials are able to collect on those tested is incomplete, he said.

“We do have information, but it’s not full information,” he said, “and the problem with incomplete statistics is they can lead to wrong conclusions.”

Reidy said a significant number of people tested for the coronavirus have declined to identify their race or ethnicity.

“If that’s a sizable number, it makes you question your conclusions,” he said. “So we’re going back and those who don’t have an identified race or ethnicity, we’re trying to just be sure they didn’t say it because of some deep-seated view that they didn’t want to give it out or if it was just not done with everything else that was happening at the time they initially were tested positive.”

Trying to determine whether someone has a Hispanic background, for example, by reviewing surnames can lead to wrong assumptions, Reidy said. “It’s difficult to tell from looking at names what race or ethnicity someone has,” he said.

In addition to gathering information on race and ethnicity, health officials want to learn more about those who are tested, including the income levels and jobs of those infected by the virus.

Health officials tend to have more information on people who tested positive for infections, Reidy said. “The reporting requirement is for positive tests because it’s a reportable disease,” he said.

Areas of Concern

Dr. Cathy Slemp, the state health officer and commissioner of the Bureau of Public Health at the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR), spoke about the issues facing African Americans during Friday’s daily state coronavirus briefing.

“We’ve had 13 counties that have had at least one case in the African-American population,” Slemp said. “If we look at counties with more than one case of COVID-19 in the African-American population, several of the counties have a higher percentage of cases among African-Americans than their population of African Americans.”

Counties where African Americans had a greater percentage of cases included Berkeley, Jefferson, Marion, McDowell, Mercer, Monongalia, and Putnam counties.

“Again, those are small numbers, but we think it is important to look at that and explore further and work with these populations,” Slemp said. “We have many counties reaching out to our African-American population and will continue to do so.”

According to the West Virginia DHHR, 100 African Americans have tested positive for COVID-19. The percent of African Americans with the coronavirus is higher than the population overall, with 7.4% of cases involving African Americans compared to the 4.3 percentage of African Americans who make up the state’s population.

A further look at the data showed that White people had a 4.3 percent death rate as compared with Black people at 3.3 percent. However, the cases requiring hospitalization were double for Black people  at 30.4 percent while 15.2 percent of cases involving White people wound up in the hospital.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, racial and ethnic minorities face a larger burden than white populations when it comes to COVID-19 due to the age of minority populations and the number or chronic health issues in minority communities. A morbidity and mortality weekly report released in April showed that black communities were disproportionately affected by the coronavirus.

In one such study compiled by the CDC that included race and ethnicity data from 580 patients hospitalized with lab-confirmed COVID-19 found that 45 percent of individuals for whom race or ethnicity data was available were white, compared to 55 percent of individuals in the surrounding community.

The report added. “However, 33 percent of hospitalized patients were black, compared to 18 percent in the community, and 8 percent were Hispanic, compared to 14 percent in the community. These data suggest an overrepresentation of blacks among hospitalized patients.”

The CDC report attributed the greater effect of COVID-19 on the black community, to conditions, including living in densely populated areas, as a result of racial housing segregation; multi-generational households, distance from grocery stores and medical facilities, underlying health conditions, lack of insurance and issues related to poverty or low-income.

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