What does Black Pittsburgh need to know about COVID-19?

A virtual town hall organized by 1Hood Media and UrbanKind Institute set out to answer that question on Tuesday. The panelists discussed topics ranging from COVID-19 myths to how to build systems and resources moving forward.

“We’re doing this because we care about Pittsburgh, but we especially care about Black Pittsburgh, because they are really under assault by COVID-19,” moderator Cheryl Hall-Russell said.

The speakers directed the audience to resources, discussed distrust of the healthcare system and mainstream media in the Black community, busted myths and misconceptions about COVID-19 and urged the Black community to take it seriously and the community-at-large to be cognizant of the existing inequities, like housing, access to the internet and food, that the coronavirus crisis exacerbated further. The speakers said that they were planning another town hall on the same topic next week. To send them a question, email miracle@1hood.org.

PublicSource summarized the key points the panelists made below and included the abbreviated answers to some of the questions for brevity.

The panelists on Tuesday included:

  • Jamil Bey, PhD, CEO of UrbanKind Institute
  • Tiffany L Gary-Webb, PhD, associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health
  • Jasiri X, CEO of 1Hood Media
  • Cheryl Hall-Russell, Ed.D, President of BW3 (moderator)

A few points the panelists made:

  • Black communities in some parts of America are being disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. It is necessary to get Allegheny County racial data to know how Black communities are being impacted locally, and act before it’s too late.
  • Lack of insurance, access to quality healthcare and relationships to trusted healthcare professionals, as well as higher rates of preexisting health conditions, are contributing to Black communities being hit harder by COVID-19.
  • The coronavirus spread across the world so rapidly for several reasons: there is no immunity yet, it is highly infectious and asymptomatic people can still spread the disease.
  • There are a lot of myths surrounding the virus. Make sure to check with reputable sources for the most accurate information.
  • Communities must build infrastructure to tackle potential future crises, such as by electing trustworthy public officials, engaging experts in the public health sector and working on economic development efforts.
  • For COVID-19 testing or if you need help with housing, dial United Way at 211 or 888-816-2774. If you are part of the Allegheny Health Network, dial 412-Nurse-4-U. If your primary care physician is with UPMC, use the UPMC app. If you don’t have a primary care physician, call 211, and they will refer you to the closest clinics in your neighborhood.
  • Take the Family Strengths Survey so local leaders and institutions can better know how to serve specific neighborhoods during the pandemic.
  • Text “staysafe” to 77948 to get updates from 1Hood.
  • Take the pandemic seriously, stay at home if you can and protect your health.

Q: What have we seen happening in Black communities across the nation as it pertains to the impact of COVID-19?

Gary-Webb: Unfortunately, it’s exactly what we thought was going to happen. I want to see more data, just so we can know the impact, but also get ahead of it. Because too often when we’re looking at data by race, and when we’re looking at disparities, it’s at the end of it. And this is moving so quickly, that in a couple of weeks, that data is going to be old and we won’t be able to impact the numbers.

This week we’ve seen data from those states that have stepped up and reported, and it’s not good. In Louisiana and Chicago, 70% of deaths are from Blacks. That’s just unacceptable. Now that we know this is happening, we need to be reporting everywhere, and then we need to be trying to intervene in every way we can.

Hall-Russell: Things in America fall around the fault lines of race and socioeconomics. And so we know whenever America gets a cold, we get pneumonia. So it was clear to us very early on that we needed to be tracking this racially. And there has still been no mandate at the federal level for that to happen.

Jasiri X: It’s interesting how all of a sudden, you know the term “essential worker,” most of the essential workers look like us. A lot of times, it’s our community having to go out. What resources are going to be available to our community to help fight back?

Q: What are some of the social determinants around being Black and this disease?

Bey: These are political determinants. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC] decided not to track the pandemic by race; this is the first pandemic in which they did that. Where this hurts us specifically, is not so much this pandemic as the next one. We need data at the neighborhood level by race, by gender, by socioeconomic status, so we can understand solutions and understand mitigations for the next one. This is an epic failure from the top.

A lot of our folks have those preexisting conditions that make us more vulnerable, like diabetes and heart conditions. And Black and Brown folks don’t have the same type of insurance, access to quality healthcare and relationships to healthcare professionals that we trust. We don’t have the savings because we’ve been excluded from full participation in the economy. So it’s more difficult for us to stay in place and order our groceries. All of these things combined, what we’re seeing is that we’re just being hit really hard.

Q: Give me one myth about this that you’ve heard.

Jasiri X: Somebody said to me that there were no deaths in Israel because they drink hot lemon water with baking soda in it, and if you did that, that would make you immune.

Bey: That the virus doesn’t live above 55 degrees. While that may be true, there are also viruses, like HIV, for which that is not true. We don’t know yet. It’s too early to tell.

Hall-Russell: What these myths are doing is giving a false sense of security. If one of those things comes into your email, your DMs, go onto a reputable website like Snopes, Johns Hopkins University or Harvard University and check it. This doesn’t mean you’re not bright. This doesn’t mean you believe it. We’re not judging you about believing some of these things. But they wouldn’t be taking a year to look for a vaccination for this if it was as easy as drinking warm water.

Gary-Webb: It’s not exactly a myth, but it took [government officials] a long time to say wear masks outside, because the cloth masks that you’re making at home aren’t really protecting you from the virus. It’s trying to protect other people. So that’s another thing where we don’t want to get too comfortable with. We need to still keep distance from others.

Jasiri X: Our distrust is rooted in a history of medical apartheid that’s been directed toward our community, so what we don’t want to do is dismiss anybody, but to say that that’s an understandable feeling.

Hall-Russell: I think it’s important to note that pandemics aren’t new, they’re new to us. They were warning us that one of them was coming down the pipe.

Q: What are we learning from this? What are we advocating for and going to hold our governments accountable for? How do we not find ourselves this incapable of response again?

Jasiri X: We’re learning how vulnerable we are, particularly as communities. We really need to think about self-determination and how we can begin to build an infrastructure in our community where we can begin to take care of ourselves. Part of the issue is that when we, as Black people, engage in any of these systems, we’re always treated as second-class citizens. We’ve heard stories of Black people having the symptoms and being turned away, of people who died because they didn’t have the proper insurance. So part of our responsibility is to look at ways we can begin to mitigate a lot of these circumstances in our community, like electing people who are actually going to serve us, engaging folks in the public health community to say ways we can educate our community better, and collectively working on economic development.

There’s always been this conversation about these two Pittsburghs… We’re part of that other Pittsburgh. How are we gonna make sure that our communities are taken care of and not just survive this, but come out with resources and tools that we can help for next time?

Hall-Russell: If you want to check in to see about testing or get help with a housing crisis, dial United Way at 211 or dial 888-816-2774. If you want to get testing and you are part of the Allegheny Health Network, you can dial 412-Nurse-4-U. Or if your primary care physician is with UPMC, you can use the UPMC app. If you don’t have a primary care physician, you can call 211, and they will refer you to the closest clinics in your neighborhood.

Q: How do we assure that the clinical trials for a vaccine include us?

Gary-Webb: I totally agree that there are justifiable reasons that people have to mistrust some of the medical establishments and trials. I really believe that we have to have diverse populations in these studies to be able to know whether it’s effective in different populations. We have assurances that people will not be abused. We have institutional review boards, we have lots of different protocols. One of the solutions is to have more of us in those spaces to be able to monitor what’s going on. I’m a proponent that people should participate in trials, ask questions, seek out people who do know what the deal is.

This is also a controversial topic within our communities, but vaccines have been one of the biggest public health successes that we have. And if we did not have vaccines, we would be seeing this so much more often. We do need to have participation in those trials.

Q: How do we begin to build systems in our community that are virtual and effective?

Jasiri X: I think it starts with making sure folks have the equipment. Going forward, it should be something in place where, if you’re a Pittsburgh public school or charter school student, you automatically get access to a laptop or some sort of technology to do work from home. I think it starts with making sure every child has equipment, or every person that needs it, and that folks have access to Wi-Fi. And at that point, it’s just about beginning to be creative and organize different things. We’re planning a poetry slam online, people have been doing yoga online and online happy hours. To me, those fun and innovative and creative things are what is getting us through such a trying time.

Q: How are we connecting with Black folks who are outside of Pittsburgh proper?

Bey: If we are able to get virtual, we are able to reimagine and redefine where these community boundaries are. We need to redefine, who are we talking to? If the city is displacing people and there are more folks in the county now, then that’s not a problem that’s going away. How do we imagine what these new spaces will look like? We need to get better about thinking about, how do we share those resources and get philanthropy and elected officials to think about.

Jasiri X: If you’re in the Mon Valley, definitely reach out to Take Action Mon Valley. They’re very active right now and they’ve been an essential resource to the community in the Mon Valley.

Q: What action steps can we do now, from our home, that can be helpful?

Gary-Webb: We’re in a difficult time, but we’ve gotta stick it out. Stay home if you can, take all the precautions that you can. Health is the most important thing.

Bey: There’s a national call out now to have folks skip this next week to go grocery shopping. That’s an effort to do some hyper-social distancing so we can break the cycle and slow this thing down. So stay home. That’s the biggest thing that you can do right now. But at the same time, recognizing how difficult that is, because folks don’t always have the resources to buy two weeks of groceries, and they’ve gotta get out.

We’re trying to get a snapshot of where resources are and what the hyper-local needs are. So take the Family Strengths Survey so we can advocate for you. We’ll take that survey and feed it back to elected officials and philanthropy.

Jasiri X: Take it seriously. Wear a mask, wear gloves, make sure your children are protected. And if you’re showing signs or symptoms, make sure you get to the hospital and make sure they test you. If they’re trying to send you home, make sure you get tested. You can text “staysafe” to 77948 to get updates from 1Hood on what’s happening.

Juliette Rihl is a reporter for PublicSource. She can be reached at juliette@publicsource.org.

PublicSource has a special page dedicated to our reporting on COVID-19 for the Pittsburgh region. See it here and sign up for our newsletter to stay informed. We hope you are following the news and, if your situation allows, social distancing guidelines. Have a tip or an idea? Please email mila@publicsource.org.

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Juliette Rihl reports on criminal justice, public safety and mental health for PublicSource. Her 2020 series on how court debt impacts low-income Allegheny County residents prompted the county to join...