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Opinion – COVID-19 and the African American Community

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The COVID-19 pandemic is hitting the African American community especially hard due to stark health disparities that were widespread well before this pandemic.

Our Black community here in Oakland and Alameda County is now, once again, particularly at-risk for a dangerous health problem. While Alameda County’s Latino and Pacific Islander communities are also experiencing disproportionately high rates of COVID-19, African Americans are dying at the highest rates. This is a very stressful and frightening reality.

Governments at all levels must stay focused on this disparity to avoid the worst outcomes of this epidemic and protect our community, especially our beloved seniors. The way that this virus appears to cause higher rates of fatalities among African Americans needs to be central to the way we tackle this problem.

During the last few months there have been unprecedented organizational challenges caused by COVID-19, including a nationwide shortage of tests; an uphill battle to acquire enough personal protection equipment (PPE) for health workers and the community; medical staffing shortages due to the scale of this pandemic and the urgency of getting care and housing to people who are homeless.

Throughout this turmoil we remain focused on the ways that the outbreak is hitting some communities so much harder. Why? Because while this disease does not discriminate, it does not erase racism against the African American community.

In response, the Alameda County Health Care Services Agency’s Public Health Department (ACPHD) is working to reduce disparities and promote health equity.

For the COVID-19 response, ACPHD is using a multi-pronged strategy: increasing access to testing, facilitating isolation and quarantine through health and social supports, providing community-specific health education, and improving the quality and integrity of race/ethnicity data.

We can and must mitigate the long-term health and socioeconomic impacts of this pandemic on communities of color.

Here are a few of the ways that our County has been responding to COVID-19:

The County’s Office of Emergency Services (OES) is acting as a central hub for distribution of PPE, like masks and gowns, for local organizations. The OES purchases supplies and also receives PPE from state and federal sources, and directs it to the appropriate healthcare facilities and community organizations in the County. While PPE remains in tight supply nationwide, OES has fulfilled over 90% of the requests received.

ACPHD has launched a testing team, focused on increasing access to COVID-19 testing through partnerships with cities, community clinics, and faith-based organizations. Any testing sites that come online in the county must comply with ACPHD guidelines, including access for low-income and homeless individuals as needed. I’m proud to say that Roots Community Clinic is leading the way with their walk-up test site in East Oakland, which serves all.

• Due to decades of discrimination, the Black community makes up a significantly disproportionate share of the county’s homeless population. We have quickly expanded the availability of shelter and testing by working with the state of California to acquire hotel space throughout the county for unsheltered individuals who are COVID-19 positive or at high risk for complications from the disease. The program continues to expand with more hotels currently being added throughout the county.

• Although the emerging data in Alameda County and California shows that the racial disparity is not as extreme here as it is in some cities, any disparity is unacceptable. To keep our communities informed of this issue, the county has been updating a COVID-19 data dashboard with information on the spread of the disease, including by zip code and racial group. View the dashboard at acphd.org/2019-ncov.

We have much more work to do. We need to continue to increase testing and expand contact tracing to help us identify new cases early and understand how the COVID-19 is spreading in our communities.

We need culturally competent teams to do this work. We need to overcome a history of discriminatory policies and outcomes that brought us here. We need to continue to support families, workers, small businesses and communities struggling with the economic consequences of this pandemic.

We cannot accept as fact that the Black community will get sick and die at inequitable rates. As we keep fighting COVID-19, we must do so in a manner that substantively addresses the historical racial health inequities of Alameda County.

Supervisor  Nate Miley represents Alameda County District 4, which includes Pleasanton, Oakland and Castro Valley.

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