By Jane Cabarrus
Region 1 Director, Eastern Shore NAACP
The world is struggling with a global pandemic and citizens of the Eastern Shore are not escaping the impacts. Clearly, the world was not ready and neither were the United States, individual states, and the local public health infrastructure. We quickly learned that the materials to protect our hospital staff, our first responders, and our patients are entangled in a worldwide competitive supply chain, causing nations and our own states to bid against each other.
Many across the commonwealth of Virginia and throughout the U.S. are less familiar with the health and economic disparities on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. For example, counties like Accomack and Northampton are often the last to be recognized for economic inequality. This time, we find ourselves fighting against the coronavirus (COVID-19). This is a challenge for us all, especially the isolated and underserved.
Disparity in rural counties has existed for centuries and the impact on the African American and other ethnic communities can no longer go unaddressed. As of Tuesday, May 5, Accomack County had 421 confirmed cases and seven reported deaths. Northampton County reported 140 cases and one death. The numbers are increasing and nowhere near achieving stability. Heritage Hall long-term care facility in Nassawadox tested patients and staff and both are expected to have numerous cases.
We all understand the factors behind the push to “reopen.” Many businesses are already beyond recovery and will declare bankruptcy. Even when reopened, customers will not return in large numbers until there is confidence in our testing and tracing capabilities.. Given the increase of cases on the Eastern Shore and limited health facilities, we must proceed to reopen slowly.
As of May 5, the Virginia Department of Health reported that of the 538 Eastern Shore cases for which race data were collected (31 cases did not record race information), 68% are African American, 30% are white, and 2% are categorized as “other.” Of the hospitalizations, 73% of the cases are African American, 23% are white. One patient (4%) is categorized as “other.”
The number of positive coronavirus cases is increasing on the Shore at an alarming rate and we must implement strategies to educate, prevent, and treat this pandemic in a more comprehensive fashion. No one is tracking the testing of home health care workers operating in the private sector or the number of patients who are dying in their homes. We have failed to ensure that the virus is not spreading among family members because their residences are not equipped for isolation or proper care. For this reason, we must create a community partnership with the citizens of the Eastern Shore along with both the public and private sectors to ensure a more definitive approach to social, medical, and economic responsibility.
The numbers speak for themselves, but what has the state of Virginia or the federal government done to address these disparities? What has Eastern Shore Rural Health and Riverside Shore Memorial done for the citizens?
On the Eastern Shore, our public health resources are thin. There is only one hospital with a 55-bed capacity, and it has designated two beds for COVID-19. This indicates that all hospitalized patients are being transferred to Newport News or Norfolk, miles away, with two tunnels in between. Patients are told to “stay home” when they call the nurse on the provided phone number. Others are being sent home to fend for themselves. This guidance is causing an underreporting of actual cases. As an alternative measure, a drive-thru diagnostic facility is needed when nurses wish to have someone tested who calls in suspecting they have the virus.
Testing and tracing capabilities are critical to quantifying and controlling the spread of COVID-19. Until recently there has been no effort to increase testing in these rural areas or to ensure the elderly and frail are being cared for after diagnosis. If family members come down with the virus, they are left to care for themselves. There is no one to check on these in-home patients or to ensure they are receiving proper nourishment.
As director of the Eastern Shore NAACP, I urge assistance from the state, local, and federal agencies to help the disadvantaged and low-income residents of the Shore. The facts are clear, and we need direct action. Our president has ordered that plants such as poultry and meat processing remain opened and operated with “essential employees” who are largely African American and other minorities. Only now are they starting to receive the protection and recognition associated with these risky jobs.
I am appealing to the commonwealth of Virginia, Virginia meat packing plants, hotels, hospitals, restaurants, and businesses on the Shore, to enforce the following provisions in the coming week:
- The governor of Virginia to declare a state of emergency specifically for the Eastern Shore to prevent the spread and treat those infected with the COVID-19 virus.
- Request immediate medical assistance to be available on the Shore by setting up temporary care units for infected COVID-19 patients. Have no employer send an employee home to care for themselves.
- Ensure all plant workers are tested prior to returning to work as well as to receive unemployment insurance while out of work in addition to funds from the CARES Act.
- Require all “essential workers” to be tested daily by their employers, and establish a program to test and treat healthcare workers employed in private residences.
- Set up a special task force to explore ways to better serve the minority communities and the elderly.
- Utilize our colleges’ and universities’ third- and fourth-year students to conduct tracing and notify persons who may be vulnerable.
- Recruit ministers and mental health professionals to work a hotline for family members suffering from the loss of a loved one or fear of loss of employment.
- Utilize the fund for disadvantaged businesses operated by the Virginia SBDC to assist minorities and disadvantaged businesses and provide needed services during this pandemic.
It has always been understood that any form of economic difficulty affects African Americans at a much higher rate than Americans of European descent. We can no longer bury our heads in the sand because we are afraid it may offend someone, and we must remain ever vigilant. This pandemic is exposing a deeper sickness in our communities and in our society. We cannot erase it without getting to the source and taking bold action to confront it. The people of the Eastern Shore are strong. They are all essential and must be treated so.
Remember to do social distancing, avoid large and small gatherings, separate sick people from healthy people, and wash your hands.