What You Need To Know

  • COVID-19 pandemic hit communities of color harder
  • Local Buffalo organizations helped address underlying health inequities that cause these disproportionate outcomes
  • Innovative solutions, like enrolling the help of faith leaders, can improve comorbidities

Nationally, communities of color are being disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic — Black Americans are dying at nearly two times higher rates than the population they share from the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Atlantic’s COVID Tracking Project.

During the early onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, deaths due to the virus were hovering around 34 percent for African Americans, which account for 13.8 percent of the population, said Pastor Kinzer Pointer, of Agape Fellowship Baptist Church, during Spectrum News Buffalo’s #IAm1in5 Facebook Live chat.

“It was approaching three times the population rate and it sent some flares up,” he said.

Pointer is also the co-conveyor of the African American Health Equity Task Force.

“We engaged in a conversation with the county executive, Erie County Medical Center (ECMC), commissioner of health and the commissioner of social services and said, ‘We can actually mute that,” he said. “’We could actually improve those numbers if we give people access to certain things.’”

Those certain things — like COVID-19 testing, access to primary health care, transportation, food and safe housing — are called social determinants of health, which are the economic and social conditions that impact people’s health, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Earlier this month, on May 7, the African American Health Equity Task Force and its Buffalo Center for Health Equity partnered with ECMC to launch a 12-week community outreach program that addresses inequities in social determinants of health in Erie and Niagara County.

The $1.125 million grant by ECMC will help provide comprehensive social, behavioral health and pastoral services.

That partnership focused on outreach to Latino and African Americans in 10 zip codes in Western New York — nine of which are in Erie County: 14201, 14203, 14204, 14208, 14209, 14211, 14213, 14215, and 14218.

Several of these zip codes were the focus of the African American Health Equity Task Force for years.

One of those zip codes — 14215 — now accounts for the highest confirmed cases in Erie County.

These disparities between white and black Americans have been documented in the U.S., for over 120 years when W.E.B. Du Bois conducted the first sociological study of a black community in America and documented his findings in the book “The Philadelphia Negro.”

Understanding the historical roots of health disparities in Western New York, specifically on Buffalo’s East Side, has helped lower the percentage of deaths among people of color.

“We braced for the impact by engaging in a massive amount of self-educating in the community,” Pointer said in the Facebook Live. “Here’s what coming.”

The last zip code that the African American Health Equity Task Force, Buffalo Center for Health Equity and ECMC partnership aims to provide outreach is 14305 in Niagara County.

The county does not break down COVID-19 confirmed cases by zip code, said Kevin Schuler, the public information office for Niagara County.

The 14305 zip code encompasses two municipalities, the city of Niagara Falls, which has 260 confirmed cases — the highest in the county — and the town of Niagara, which has 22 confirmed cases.

However, just like New York state, Niagara doesn’t keep track of data along race and ethnicity, said Schuler.

The outreach program will partner with 15 churches located in these zip codes, and will work with community members to address social determinants of health needs via phone calls.

The program hours will be from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and last until July 31.

Nationally, church-based health promotion programs have had success in addressing barriers to health care among people of color regarding disparities in cancer, diabetes and heart disease.

Having comorbidities like diabetes, heart disease or cancer significantly increases poorer outcomes for people diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the report “Comorbidity and its impact on 1590 patients with COVID-19 in China: a nationwide analysis.

Faith leaders were formative in developing the African American Health Task Force in Buffalo with both Pastor Pointer and Pastor George Nicholas, co-conveyor of African American Health Equity Task Force and Buffalo Center for Health Equity, helping on the original report

In December 2019, the University at Buffalo launched the Community Health Research Institute in partnership with the African American Health Equity Task Force to address long-standing health disparities.

Addressing inequalities in social determinants of health can improve health disparities by 10-20 percent, said Timothy Murphy, the University at Buffalo Community Health Research Institute director.

On May 18, Murphy and Pastor Nicholas spoke at the New York State Joint Virtual Public Hearing Exploring Solutions to the Disproportionate Impact of COVID-19 on Minority Communities.

“It is no surprise that minority communities in Buffalo, and really throughout the country, are suffering outcomes from COVID-19 than the general population,” Murphy said at the hearing.

“The underlying disorders that result in more adverse COVID-19 outcomes and have a higher death rate are the exact same disorders that are more common in the seven zip codes in Buffalo with high rates of poverty and minority populations,” he said.

The most important solutions to the worst outcomes to COVID-19 are won’t be solved by health care, but by addressing systemic inequities regarding social determinants of health, Murphy said.

On May 21, the Community Health Research Institute hosted its first public meeting via video tackling how to address those systemic inequities including fostering multi-disciplinary working groups, forming collaborations like the ECMC outreach program, and communicating the importance of this research to the community.

And while some of the impact of these health disparities can be measured, others are intangible.

“I can tell you as a pastor, and this is my 39th year in ministry, that as a pastor I am burying people who are 50-something,” Pointer said during the video. “It’s alarming, it’s disturbing, it robs the community of elders, it robs the community of people who guide younger people.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted nearly every aspect of life in America.

More than four out of 10 Americans say the pandemic negatively impacted their mental health according to a poll by Kaiser Family Foundation.

“I think we are suffering from a collective trauma, I don’t know if you could really be human and not think of all of the massive amounts of loss that we’ve suffered collectively,” Pointer said “This amount of death...heaped on you all at the same time, it takes its toll on you mentally...I have a great, overwhelming sense of sadness.”

Both physical and mental health disparities exist in communities of color and predate the pandemic.

Approximately 30 percent of African Americans with a mental illness receive treatment compared to 43 percent of the total population of people with mental illness, according to the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

It’s one of the reasons that pastoral and mental health care was included in the outreach program between the African American Health Equity Task Force and its Buffalo Center for Health Equity partnered with ECMC.

“We know that everybody is suffering, right,” he said “Pastoral care is available, but not just pastoral...if you have a social need that’s not being met in regards to your mental health we’re able to refer you to some of our community partners.”

Pointer asks that people who the outreach program contacts through the phone, answer.

“Take their phone call, answer their questions,” he said. “They’re not bill collectors.”

The Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation offers free COVID-19 Virtual and Telehealth Therapy to the African-American community for up to five individual sessions on a first come, first serve basis.