Virus issues facing black community addressed

Group conducts first meeting to discuss solutions

Submitted photo Jill Upson, executive director of the Herbert Henderson Office of Minority Affairs, speaks at an advisory group meeting on the pandemic and the black community.

CHARLESTON — A task force of community groups, faith-based leaders, lawmakers and health officials held its first meeting Monday to tackle the issues facing West Virginia’s black community and the coronavirus.

The COVID-19 Advisory Commission on African American Disparities met Monday morning by conference call.

The commission consists of 12 members, three representing the black community, three members of the West Virginia Legislature, three representatives of faith-based organizations and three healthcare representatives.

The commission is chaired by Jill Upson, executive director of the Herbert Henderson Office of Minority Affairs in the governor’s office.

Upson said the commission will develop plans to educate at-risk minority communities in prevention, testing and treatment.

“The commission will consider strategies to remove barriers to testing and make recommendations to broaden the inclusion of underserved communities in the state’s expanded testing plan,” Upson said.

The Department of Health and Human Resources announced the creation of the commission last week. According to department data, 7.4 percent of those testing positive for the coronavirus are people in the black community.

In Marion County — one of six counties considered hotspots for the coronavirus — 52 percent of the 46 cases were black.

In 21 out of 55 counties there is at least one case in the black community with 14 counties reporting at least one case in a non-black minority community.

The catalyst for the formation of the commission came from an outbreak of coronavirus at a predominantly African-American church after several area churches gathered for a celebration in March.

According to The Charleston Gazette-Mail, 88-year-old Viola Horton was one of the attendees. She later died from COVID-19, becoming West Virginia’s first coronavirus death.

Romelia Hodges, a business owner in Marion County and a member of a church at the March celebration, came down with the coronavirus as did her husband.

Her three children also developed COVID symptoms, such as aches and loss of smell.

Hodges tried to work with the local health department to help let people know they needed to be tested, but ran into several roadblocks.

She said she hopes the commission can prevent similar problems in minority communities in the state.

“I’m so glad to see this come into fruition,” Hodges said.

“I’m also glad that we…have come together under the conditions that have gone on in the state and to make sure that incidents like the one that happened in Marion County never happens again,” said Mike Jones, CEO of the Kanawha Institute for Social Research and Action

Owens Brown, a Wheeling native and president of the West Virginia conference of NAACP chapters, said health disparities in West Virginia’s black community are nothing new.

“The issue of minority health has been an issue with us for a number of years,” Brown said. “We are hoping to be able to educate our people in all different parts of the state on these issues.

“I do believe this is a great beginning and something that we have been asking for for many years.”


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