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Task force studying African American COVID cases establishes goals

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A state task force centered on African American disparities when it comes to COVID-19 met for the first time on Monday and focused on how to get more testing to the population.

In a Zoom call the group, COVID-19 Advisory Commission on African American Disparities, including leaders of minority groups in West Virginia, state politicians and state health leaders studied the current testing numbers and established goals.

“The goal is assistance in getting individuals in these communities, that we’ve targeted where there are higher rates of positives and higher hospitalizations, to get more tested,” state Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR) Secretary Bill Crouch said.

Bill Crouch

Crouch and the DHHR put the task force together with Jill Upson, the director of the Herbert Henderson Office of Minority Affairs in Gov. Jim Justice’s administration.

The DHHR has recently added race to its dashboard of reported data on the virus and shows startling numbers. 95 African American residents in West Virginia have tested positive for COVID-19, which is 7.3 percent of the total cases in the state. The state’s African-American population in West Virginia is 4.2 percent.

The DHHR also reports that 30.4 percent of the cases among the African American community are hospitalized compared to 15.2 percent in Caucasian cases.

Dr. Clay Marsh, the state coronavirus czar said the increase in testing in these communities must be done in a “strategic and thoughtful way.”

Clay Marsh

“The African American community is a vulnerable community and we want to make sure as we focus the strategic testing that we are working closely together to understand how we can both best serve the community and how we can get the trust of the community so people do start to get tested,” he said.

Race percentage by county in the state DHHR numbers show 13 counties have reported at least one case of COVID-19 for an African American and within those counties, disproportioned rates with the total population.

Gilmer County (62.5 percent), Marion (52.17), McDowell (33.3), Pendleton (20), Hardy (18.75), Mercer (18.18), Berkeley (12.11), Jefferson (11.36), and Monongalia (10.62) all are seeing total positive cases in the double-digits percentage for African Americans.

Crouch said contact tracing will be a key part of testing in the community. Marsh agreed, stating that more vulnerable populations are in a congregant setting.

“The goal would be to start in the communities with more activity and start to test at some volume and work with everyone to figure out where we should test, how we should test so that we get the right people to show up to make sure we are screening and testing the African American population,” Marsh said.

“One we don’t want to see it spread quickly among community members but two we know nationally there are disproportionately more outcomes in some states related to the African American population.”

Dr. Sarah Sanders, an epidemiologist, was on the call and went over the current DHHR reported numbers. She called the trend in some counties “concerning,” especially the outbreak in Marion County. Many cases in that county are connected to an African American Baptist community, which was first reported by the Gazette-Mail.

“Based on the population we are seeing more positive cases in the African-American then I would expect based on the percentage of African-American in that population,” she said.

The meeting adjourned without an official date or time or the next gathering but officials including state Sen. Patricia Rucker (R-Jefferson), Del. Caleb Hanna (R-Nicholas) and Del. Sean Hornbuckle (D-Cabell) discussed meeting twice a week.

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