Minority communities deal with confusion, mistrust about COVID-19

By  and , Daily Memphian Updated: June 29, 2020 6:21 PM CT | Published: June 29, 2020 4:00 AM CT

Since 1999, 81-year old Jewell Jones Wright has sold Avon products under the deep shade of two oak trees at the intersection of Walker Avenue and Wellington Street in South Memphis. She transports her inventory in shopping carts to and from her home nearby.

Wearing masks now is mandatory in Memphis inside public places to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, and Wright wears a mask even outside under the trees. Since she is African American and over 60, she’s statistically more at risk to contract the virus. 

Strickland signs mask ordinance

“The Bible speaks of a plague,” she said. “Time and time again the Bible speaks of a plague. And the plague is just here now.”

Wright doesn’t know anyone who has had the coronavirus and hasn’t been tested herself.

“Frankly I never thought about it. I hear them talking about all these tests and stuff,” she said, adding that her philosophy is that what’s going to be will be.

Health Department pushes for more testing

A look at two geographic data maps from the Shelby County Health Department shows where the hot spots are for coronavirus cases and testing rates by ZIP code per 100,000 people. Both maps are updated each Thursday.

Many of the COVID-19 hot spots with the highest numbers are in North and South Memphis neighborhoods, areas that contain significant African American and Hispanic populations.

Demographic and ethnicity data show those groups are affected by the virus at disproportionate rates.

African Americans make up 59% of total cases though representing 54% of the population in Shelby County, according to Census data. Hispanics represent 27% of overall cases by ethnicity, while making up about 6% of the population by Census count.

The hot spots are in communities where free COVID-19 testing is available, but where residents are not fully using it, said David Sweat, Shelby County Health Department’s head of epidemiology.

The Health Department has tried to spread awareness about testing through radio spots, press briefings and billboards. Though in recent weeks, even as testing capacity increased, the information campaign hasn’t been effective enough. Testing numbers have leveled off at around 1,600 a day. That’s more than the original goal of 1,000 a day, but far short of the current benchmark of 2,400.

There may be a lack of trust toward public health in those communities, but there’s also a risk associated with being tested, particularly for essential workers, Sweat said. Jobs classified as essential include health care, construction and fast-food. Those jobs involve more human interaction and increase workers’ chances of being infected.

“Some people are a little reluctant sometimes to get tested, because if I test positive, I can’t work and that might be a barrier we try to overcome,” Sweat said.

“If you need testing, we want you to get tested. We understand for some people, if you don’t have sick leave, it’s hard to take off work if you’re going to lose money if you don’t do it … It’s a potential barrier. We have to acknowledge that.”

‘Confusion and reluctance’ to get tested

Arguably the biggest health issue for minority neighborhoods in the early part of the pandemic was lack of available testing for residents.

Frayser, for example, did not have its first testing site until mid-April. It’s a predominantly African American neighborhood of more than 40,000 in one of Memphis’ most economically distressed areas, according to U.S. Census data.

Efforts underway to increase COVID-19 testing sites in neighborhoods

The 38127 ZIP code, mostly encompassing Frayser, has a testing rate of 9,302 per 100,000 people, according to Health Department data. That’s a lower testing rate than many other ZIP codes, despite its status as one of the largest neighborhoods in Memphis. 

The COVID-19 case rate of 825.3 per 100,000 people is also one of the lower rates within the county, though the ZIP Code has an average positivity rate of 9%. That’s 1.5% higher than the county’s overall rate of 7.5%, as of Friday, June 26.

Pursuit of God Church Pastor Ricky Floyd was one of several community leaders who successfully pushed for COVID-19 testing in Frayser, and there are currently several sites in the community.

He said the challenges now are a lack of clarity about testing and confusion about it among residents. Testing is available for symptomatic and asymptomatic coronavirus patients but varies on location.

It was unclear whether you had to pay or have insurance to get tested, Floyd said. And then there’s this: “Some people don’t trust the system to the point they were afraid as heck that testing would inject them with the coronavirus.”

Pursuit of God Church will host coronavirus testing in Frayser in early July, Floyd said. While he and other leaders were frustrated initially, he understands that the coronavirus is a “learning curve” for all involved.

“This is a new disease, so everybody was still on the learning curve,” Floyd said. “Even though I was aggressive, I did have to realize that this is not something we can say we went to this last year, 10 years, 20 years ago … I kept crowing like a rooster loud until we had some awakenings to happen.”

Outreach efforts must be deliberate

Despite Health Department efforts, information on the availability of free COVID-19 testing is not common knowledge in South Memphis.

The testing rate for ZIP codes 38106 and 38126, which are grouped together, show nearly 9,100 people per 100,000 have been tested, which is the second-lowest tier in the Health Department’s analysis. These communities are 95% and 93% African American respectively.

“I don’t think they know it’s free and I don’t think they know where to get it. I know I don’t know,” said Rebecca Hutchinson, executive director of SCORE (South City Opportunity, Revitalization and Empowerment).

For many residents, traditional advertising is too easy to miss.

Health officials should be working with apartment complex managers, posting flyers on utility poles, in libraries and corner store bulletin boards, Hutchinson said.

“The thing about our communities is you really have to be intentional about getting the word out in our neighborhoods,” said Hutchinson, who lives in the 38106 ZIP code.

Residents in underserved communities can’t go online to find the Health Department’s list of testing sites.

The poor, African Americans face worst of coronavirus

“One of the things COVID-19 has brought to light is the economic digital divide. This is an issue with our school kids,” she said.

Even if they find out about free testing, there are other challenges.

“They may know from word of mouth. But even if they do know, where do they go? And how do they get there?” Hutchinson said.

Or, said Shelby County Commission member Reginald Milton, are the hours 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.? Those are work hours.

“They can’t take off work. It is a gap in the understanding of the community, understanding the challenges they face and being able to adapt to it,” Milton said.

There is a coronavirus corner at the SMA (South Memphis Alliance) Laundromat on South Bellevue with flyers and other information. SMA is a nonprofit agency started and run by Milton.

When public health agencies are not familiar to residents, it’s difficult to penetrate those communities during a crisis.

“You have to be there. Too often people and agencies are in our communities but they’re not in our community. All of a sudden you have a pandemic,” Milton said. “That’s like not having a military until you get attacked. It’s a bit too late.”

And don’t discount the people in African American communities who are coronavirus disbelievers, said Betty Nesbitt, founder of the Vance Avenue Youth Development Center.

“Young people don’t believe this,” said Nesbitt. She’s not only trying to convince the young people who come to the center that the virus exists, but also that they need to wear masks.

Cases rise among Hispanics locally

On April 27, Hispanics represented 5% percent of positive coronavirus cases in Shelby County. Two months later, that number is now 27%, according to Health Department data. Many of the current ZIP Code hot spots, including 38112 and 38122, have significant Hispanic populations, who make up about 6% of Shelby County, according to the Census, and as much as 10%, according to Latino Memphis.

COVID testing lags in Latino community when workers can’t afford job loss

Mauricio Calvo, head of Latino Memphis, said communication between public health experts, government officials and the Hispanic community needs to improve as the pandemic continues.

Calvo recommends going beyond press briefings and general advertising by reaching out to influencers within Hispanic communities.

“We’re kind of building a fire truck in the middle of a fire,” Calvo said. “I hope this is a reminder that if we are either going to move forward during good times or address a crisis… we need to bring people who speak differently, who love differently, worship differently, we can’t just wait until a humongous crisis.”

Editor’s Note: The Daily Memphian is making our coronavirus coverage accessible to all readers — no subscription needed. Our journalists continue to work around the clock to provide you with the extensive coverage you need; if you can subscribe, please do. 

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Shelby County Health Department South Memphis COVID-19 COVID-19 testing Neighborhoods Frayser Pursuit of God Church Ricky Floyd Vance Avenue Youth Development Center.
Omer Yusuf

Omer Yusuf

Omer Yusuf covers Bartlett and North Memphis neighborhoods for The Daily Memphian. He also analyzes COVID-19 data each week. Omer is a former Jackson Sun reporter and University of Memphis graduate.

Linda A. Moore

Linda A. Moore

Linda A. Moore covers education, South Memphis and Whitehaven. A native of South Memphis, Linda has covered news in Memphis and Shelby County for more than 20 years and was formerly a reporter with The Commercial Appeal.


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