SCHENECTADY — As the county heads into its third week of community testing in underserved neighborhoods, a clearer picture is emerging on the virus’ impact on the black community.
African-Americans constitute 12.4 percent of the population, but 28.6 percent of new positive cases discovered at the mobile sites.
But the emerging disparities are not being openly discussed by local officials, which has worried the Schenectady NAACP.
“Our members feel the city and county have been slow in bringing information, and it’s not as detailed as it could be,” said Schenectady NAACP President Dr. Odo Butler.
Nine weeks into the pandemic, the group has waited for officials to step up in terms of direct outreach, but they contend it simply hasn’t happened, resulting in a vacuum that has left them unable to answer questions posed by people in the neighborhood.
African-Americans are predisposed to diabetes, hypertension and kidney disease, all factors that increase their vulnerability to the virus, which has killed over 22,000 New Yorkers, including 28 county residents, five of them black.
Longstanding disparities in inner-city communities have reduced access to health care, insurance and preventative screenings, while a higher percentage of essential workers are minorities.
The Daily Gazette requested the data as the community testing led by Ellis Medicine, Hometown Health, MVP Health Care and the county Public Health Department continues.
County officials were quick to make themselves available to explain recent numbers, but data sets were incomplete and publicly available information on racial demographics is buried on the county’s website and not widely disseminated.
“There has to be much more of a public conversation,” said The Rev. Dustin Wright, a member of Clergy Against Hate.
And while Wright acknowledged that Clergy Against Hate can do better themselves at making inroads with the city’s black congregations, they endorsed the Schenectady NAACP’s concerns.
“In general, we believe county leaders are doing an admirable job in many ways, but think they should do a better job in public of naming these disparities and communicating them,” Wright said.
Of the 1,311 tests administered at the pop-up sites by Monday, 1,154 were to county residents, 33 of whom tested positive.
Racial breakdowns are only available for the 28 Ellis Medicine-administered positive diagnoses.
Blacks constitute 12.4 percent of the county population, and whites 73 percent.
Eight African-Americans tested positive, or 28.6 percent. And the 13 positive diagnoses from whites constitute 46 percent, which revealed the virus is following the same general contours emerging statewide and in cities across the U.S.
Just 1 positive patient identified as Asian/Pacific Islander, while four did not provide info and two identified as “other.”
Of the collective group, two identified as Hispanic and an additional two as Guyanese.
But since demographic data is self-reported and patients are not obligated to disclose their race or ethnicity, the exact picture as to how the virus has crept into inner-city neighborhoods remains murky.
It’s also unclear how many Guyanese — which is a nationality, not a race or ethnicity — have been impacted.
Officials, however, are asking people to write that information in.
City Council President John Mootooveren declined to speculate on how many Guyanese live in the city. But Dharam “Junior” Hitlall estimated in March anywhere between 10,000 and 12,000 Guyanese are spread throughout the Capital Region.
Nearly 28 percent of the 556 county residents who tested positive as of late Monday declined to disclose details or identified themselves as “other,” which includes multi-racial or American Indian, according to county officials.
But zooming out, the data does confirm the virus is disproportionately impacting minority communities.
African-Americans constituted 16 percent of total positives, and Hispanics, 9.4 percent, who constitute 7.4 percent of the population.
The occurrence rate is lower for Asians who make up 4.8 percent of positive diagnoses and 6.6 percent of the population, and for whites who represent 50 percent of all positive cases.
SLOW TO ADAPT
Albany County officials regularly offer updates on how the virus is ravaging the black community, who make up a disproportionate share of hospitalizations and ICU patients.
The county’s African-American population is 11.4 percent, but constitute 28 percent of ICU patients, 23 percent of those hospitalized and 20 percent of fatalities.
“We continue to see that disproportionate burden of disease and death in the African-American population,” said county Public Health Commissioner Dr. Elizabeth Whalen during the county’s daily Facebook Live event on Monday.
Albany County also maintains an online dashboard outlining demographic data.
Similar trends are emerging in Rensselaer County.
“We are starting to see an increase in cases in underserved areas of the county, including some areas of Troy and some areas of Rensselaer that have concentrations of various minority groups,” said county Operations Director Rich Crist on Wednesday.
Schenectady NAACP officials want county officials to be more transparent, including making health professionals and practitioners available to field questions from the public.
Schenectady County has been slow to adapt to a climate where localities are pivoting to share info in real-time, adopting Facebook Live weeks after other Capital Region localities embraced the technology — and only fielding pre-screened questions submitted through the county website.
And while numerous clips posted to Facebook feature county legislators interviewing department heads and other officials, none directly appeal to African-American and Latino communities.
Erin Roberts, a county spokesperson, pointed at officials addressing racial disparities in previous dispatches, and a video “directly addressing this issue was recorded, but unfortunately, due to technical difficulties, we weren’t able to share it.”
Omar McGill, a Schenectady NAACP member who unsuccessfully ran for a seat on the county Legislature last fall, campaigned on the premise that the lack of diversity on the 15-member board would inevitably lead to blind spots.
“Our county government struggles with communication and they need to reach everyone that’s a part of the county,” McGill said. “If we had representation at that table, we would benefit from being able to receive information in a more efficient way.”
Eddie Polanco, a community health educator with City Mission, said those most at risk — including those packed into public housing and cooking communally out of necessity — are often those who eschew traditional channels of information and mistrust authority.
While they may be skeptical of the media, they’ll accept information from a credible messenger like himself.
But how can he convey that information if he doesn’t have it?
“If I can help them see how real it is and how close to home it is, maybe they would take better precautions instead of putting themselves at risk,” Polanco said. “It’s easier for people to believe it when they hear it from people like me.”
William Rivas, a community activist and member of the county’s Emergency Response Coalition, pointed at the county’s relief operation as evidence that the county is committed to meeting neighborhood needs.
But pressed on if the county needed to accompany its food distribution efforts with a comparable effort to communicate the public health component, he said: “Is there a better job that can be done? Probably.”
The county defended its response to the pandemic, citing work with community members, medical systems, community based organizations and community activists “to address the racial, economic, and social impacts of COVID-19, especially within our minority, elderly and vulnerable populations.”
“We value Dr. Butler’s input, and would appreciate his insights as we move forward,” Roberts said.
Roberts also pointed at the county’s social media presence and boots-on-the-ground flyer distribution efforts.
“In addition, when test kits weren’t available, we ramped up the information given to the public by providing detailed demographic data and informative videos about the best practices to stay safe,” Roberts said. “We launched weekly FB Live status updates and we have delivered to date over 30,000 masks throughout our community.”
The county has outlined positive cases, quarantines and isolations by zip code, but not by specific locality or city neighborhood.
City Mayor Gary McCarthy said he met with Butler recently to discuss how the city is leveraging technology to help people in distressed neighborhoods.
Owing to shifting media habits, the city takes a “fragmented approach” in pushing out information, opting to use email, social media and press releases in order to reach as many people as possible.
“There is not a universal or one source of information that gives you 100 percent of the market,” said McCarthy, who noted the county is leading the response to the crisis.
McCarthy wondered if Schenectady County Facebook Live events would attract the same attention from local reporters and viewers as McCoy, who represents a larger, more media-saturated area.
And if every county held live media availabilities daily, how could they all be covered?
Furthermore, county executives tend to be more comfortable in front of cameras than managers, who are administrators, he said.
Asked if the city will host a Facebook Live: “I have to look at that,” McCarthy said. “We can look at Facebook Live.”
Testing continues Thursday at Mont Pleasant Middle School. No prescriptions are needed and tests will be offered to those with or without insurance.