Black and brown Californians are uniquely at risk for COVID-19 because they have higher rates of pre-existing health conditions than white residents and are more likely to be in essential work that can’t be done from home.
Now, as thousands of demonstrators pack into Sacramento’s downtown to protest the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota, the spread of coronavirus in these communities is even more likely.
Counties across the state are bracing for a wave of COVID-19 cases following business re-openings and crowded demonstrations. And they’re grappling with how to provide accessible testing where it’s most needed.
“Prepare for an increased number of infections in the days following a protest,” reads an open letter signed by hundreds of health professionals in support of demonstrations continuing despite health risks. “Provide increased access to testing and care for people in the affected communities, especially when they or their family members put themselves at risk by attending protests.”
Public health workers often have a harder time reaching communities of color for testing due to language barriers, a lack of awareness about options or general distrust of the medical system.
San Francisco health officials have set up special pop-up clinics specifically for people who think they may have been exposed to the virus during a demonstration, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. In Los Angeles, public health officials are encouraging anyone who’s recently been exposed to a large crowd for more than 15 minutes to get tested.
In Sacramento, the main source of testing for several weeks was a drive-thru site at Cal Expo. Health officials told people who were worried about exposure to call their doctors.
But some leaders called out problems with that model, including Derrell Roberts, director of the Roberts Family Development Center in Sacramento’s Del Paso Heights neighborhood.
“Not everybody has a primary care physician, not everybody has transportation,” he said. “This was an opportunity for us to bring about some equity. Whether they choose to use it or not that’s their choice, but at least it’s available.”
The county recently opened free walk-up sites in Del Paso Heights, in Oak Park at St. Paul’s Missionary Baptist Church and in South Sacramento at La Familia’s Maple Neighborhood Center.
Roberts said he and his wife got tested, and have made a point of encouraging their neighbors to do the same.
“Sometimes as leaders you have to walk the walk,” he said. “How many people have that luxury, to simply stay home and that’s all they do? Those who are like us, who are delivering food on a daily basis, it is a potential challenge and we oughta take precautions.”
While the elevated risk of being in a large crowd might be enough to deter some people from demonstrating, epidemiologist Flojaune Cofer says people of color may see the affront to their civil liberties as a bigger threat.
“The reason we’ve been talking about COVID in communities of color is the same reason we’re talking about police violence: it’s systemic racism,” she said. “Certainly, there’s a question ... especially if they are protesters who are black and brown, and that is, 'My risk of coming out right now, does that exceed my risk of not speaking out right now?' That’s the math everybody kind of has to do for themselves.”
A recent study of more than one thousand Sutter Health patients in Northern California found that even before the protests, African Americans were nearly three times more likely to be hospitalized from COVID-19 than white patients.
Danielle Lawrence works with a nonprofit group called Mutual Assistance Network, which helps run the Del Paso Heights testing site. She said she was originally afraid to take the test, but being in a familiar place and getting the test from a health worker who looked like her was a huge help.
“She encouraged me to do it, especially as a woman of color being disproportionately affected, it’s important,” Lawrence said.
Elica Health Centers, a Sacramento-area clinic that largely serves uninsured and underinsured patients, is also providing mobile testing to migrant farm workers. Most of the staff conducting the testing are bilingual or trilingual, said community outreach specialist Lynn Ly on Insight with Beth Ruyak.
“We know that the patient population, usually English is not their first language, so we do want to cater to them and let them know that we are here whatever language they speak,” she said.
Sacramento was offering pop-up testing sites at libraries with help from the National Guard, but that effort has been postponed now that the guard has been re-assigned.
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