Experts advise creating stronger ties between communities and health care providers to combat pandemic misinformation
Health officials proposed ways to build trust in African American communities to help alleviate disparities in outcomes in future health crises at a panel discussion marking Black History Month.
African Americans were more likely to be hospitalized with Covid-19 and died at higher rates than the rest of the population, panelists said during the February 23 event at the Malcolm X & Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center in Washington Heights.
“One major problem was misinformation, people were hearing all kinds of things on social media and they didn’t know what to believe,” said Dr. Olusimbo Ige, assistant commissioner for New York City’s Bureau of Health Equity Capacity Building. It’s the responsibility of government to combat misinformation, and establishing relationships with community and faith-based organizations is “a way to get information to people quickly so they know what to do to stay safe,” said. Ige.
Last September, former Mayor Bill De Blasio introduced the Pandemic Response Institute (PRI) as a response to the coronavirus. The city provided the program $20 million in capital funding to help it prepare for future health emergencies in an equitable manner.
Creating the PRI was a necessary step, said Olajide Williams, another panelist, who is a clinical neurologist at Columbia University Irving Medical Center and co-founder of Hip Hop Public Health, a nonprofit group that promotes health through music, art and science. Dr. Williams, who has worked in emergency rooms during the pandemic, said the city failed Black people.
“We need the Pandemic Response Institute so that we can study the lessons learned and policies so we never find ourselves in that position again,” he said. “The people who were dying the most were Black people, it was complete chaos.”
The city said the institute will create systems for real-time data collection and sharing, support research that addresses public health emergencies and bridges gaps in public health infrastructure that hurts African American communities.
Geroge Leconte, chief executive officer of Harlem Hospital Center who also spoke on the panel, said Covid-19 has shown the disparities in the healthcare system and the structural racism that had been overlooked. Those disparities and social conditions drive the disproportionate numbers of death and positive cases, he said.
“African Americans had many pre-conditions that led to this,” Leconte said. “The living conditions, the lack of fresh food that we don’t have access to is unbelievable. We have to change the living conditions.”
Vaccines have proved to be effective against Covid-19, especially for people who are immunocompromised, older or live in high population-density areas. But many people, especially African Americans, were skeptical about receiving the immunizations when they were first rolled out last year.
To get more people vaccinated in high priority neighborhoods such as Mott Haven in the Bronx, Central Harlem in Manhattan, and Jamaica and Hollis in Queens, Ige and her team persuaded top health officials to make vaccines available in these neighborhoods. The city targeted 74 zip codes in high priority neighborhoods that as a result have achieved 70 percent rates of full vaccination.
“This is a long term engagement and the more we stayed the more people decided to talk, ask questions and build a relationship,” Ige said.