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Where black Pittsburghers turn for pandemic answers, action

June 9, 2020 GMT

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Take Action Mon Valley is dedicated to ending violence in whatever form it takes. So when COVID-19 began to steal lives, health and jobs, the organization stepped up.

Fawn Walker-Montgomery, the leader of Take Action Mon Valley, said the new coronavirus pandemic has one upside: It has exposed the problems that already existed in black, poor and marginalized communities throughout Western Pennsylvania.

“This is just another layer of what we deal with every day,” she said.

The artist-activists of North Oakland-based 1Hood Media also mobilized when the pandemic hit, providing services and resources for black and marginalized people. 1Hood Media handed out hundreds of masks and used its Facebook page as a free resource channel with the urgent title, “What Black People Need to Know About COVID-19,” addressing a community that has been hit harder than others by the pandemic.

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Allegheny County’s COVID-19 update page last week showed that African Americans account for 22% of the county’s reported cases, though they make up 12.8% of the county’s population. Statewide, the percentage of black coronavirus cases mirrors that of the state’s African American population at about 12%, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau statistics.

1Hood Media leader Jasiri X, a hip-hop artist whose music has been put on hold by COVID-19, is among the hosts of 1Hood Facebook sessions that have included a poetry slam, music and health information. The longtime activist for social justice also took 1Hood’s message to the streets recently to protest the death of George Floyd while he was in police custody in Minneapolis.

“To be uplifting, inspirational, entertaining and informative is kind of what we’re looking for,” Jasiri X said. “And so we’re trying to, every week, add different things and see what folks are connecting with, what folks want to see more of.”

As western Pennsylvania counties enter the green phase of reopening and protesters gather in close proximity, 1Hood continues its frequent video segments, with guest speakers on health (“Ask a Black Doctor”), education and 2020 elections. 1Hood’s “Power Hour” is specifically about politics, and getting out the vote is a big part of its message. On Memorial Day, its guests were state Rep. Joanna McClinton. D-Philadelphia, and David Dix, chairman of Gov. Tom Wolf’s Commission on African American Affairs.

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The first national guest, Latasha Brown of Black Voters Matter in Atlanta, appeared on May 26, and pointed out that all elections matter — not just presidential ones. She referenced the killing of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and Mr. Floyd’s death in Minnesota.

“It’s not just about the president. Do you think it doesn’t matter who your district attorney is?” she said.

Take Action Mon Valley, founded in 2014 in response to violent crimes and unsolved homicides of local black people, has added the fight against COVID-19 to its mission.

Walker-Montgomery can’t say how many of the 100,000 residents of Mon Valley communities such as McKeesport, Duquesne, Homestead, Rankin and Braddock have been infected by the novel coronavirus. She cites inadequate testing and data. What she does know is that joblessness due to COVID-19 layoffs, closed schools and the uncertainty of summer activities are major concerns.

Distributing food, providing transportation, raising funds to meet daily needs and calling for mobile testing top the group’s agenda these days. COVID-19 has shined a light on a critical lack of public transportation in the Mon Valley, said Ms. Walker-Montgomery, a two-term McKeesport councilwoman and now mayoral candidate. Her organization makes 50 deliveries daily, she said, partnering with The Wellness Collective and others to put necessities such as food and hygiene products into the hand of the elderly and disabled, or to shuttle people wherever they need to go.

Mobile testing and transportation to test sites are critical for economically distressed neighborhoods, Ms. Walker-Montgomery said. Allegheny Health Network’s mobile testing unit has been in Duquesne, Homewood and the Hill District. Within the UPMC system, she said, the closest location for someone in McKeesport to get COVID-19 testing is UPMC’s South Side testing site, where an appointment is required.

COVID-19 in minority groups

Because of these and other factors, Walker-Montgomery doesn’t believe that COVID-19 testing data truly reflects how it is affecting some communities, and she is joining with partners such as Put People First! PA to demand that the state order more mobile testing.

Walker-Montgomery said she tunes in to 1Hood’s sessions regularly.

“For me, it’s a place where you can ask questions about black people and not feel judged,” she said. “In our mind, we too often think about how to say things so we don’t offend anyone. There, you can just ask a question and get an answer from someone who looks like you.”

Pittsburgh native Julie Strickland-Gilliard is Western Pennsylvania regional director for Lt. Gov. John Fetterman’s office and a member of the Pennsylvania COVID-19 Response Task Force on Health Disparity.

“I’m very familiar with the team at 1Hood,” she said, noting that she was planning to watch an “Ask a Black Doctor” segment as she spoke.

“In my previous career, I did a lot of grassroots work in the nonprofit sector, and I am very familiar and grateful that organizations like 1Hood are having important discussions for the community,” she said.

A recent 1Hood town hall — featuring state Rep. Summer Lee, D-Swissvale; Allegheny County Council member Olivia Bennett and Jessica Ruffin of the county’s Department of Human Services — had 18,000 views and 300 comments.

Also working on 1Hood’s webcasts are Jamil Bey, executive director of UrbanKind Institute, and moderator Cheryl Hall-Russell, president of BW3 (Black Women Wise Women), whose main mission is to help clients adopt inclusive practices and attract diverse leaders.

1Hood’s popular “Ask a Black Doctor” segments are being done in partnership with Gateway Medical Society. The organization of African American doctors reached out to 1Hood when it saw the reach of its online platform.

On a recent segment, Drs. Rachel Toney, Marvin McGowan and Shantal Villalobos were on hand to address “myths and misperceptions and provide medical expertise to help navigate our community through this global pandemic.”

The session on May 28 had Drs. Veronica Issac and Christopher Martin along with Doretta Lemon of Pittsburgh Black Nurses in Action.

Topics have included diabetes and hypertension, which are known to be high risk factors for COVID-19 infection. A recent study by French doctors reported that 1 in 10 coronavirus patients with diabetes die within a week. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, black adults are 60% more likely than non-Hispanic white adults to have been diagnosed with diabetes by a physician.

High blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease, heart attack, stroke and, now, COVID-19. A 2018 CARDIA (Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults) study showed that black adults are up to two times more likely to develop high blood pressure by age 55 compared with white adults, with many of these racial differences developing before age 30.

Dr. Martin addressed the burden of stress and how it can manifest itself not only in ways that can be seen but on the immune system.

“Many papers have shown that stress has an adverse effect on people’s response to any sort of infection,” he said.

Panelists also addressed the need to wear masks at any age.

One viewer commented, “Great points Dr. Issac! Kids and teens tend to be asymptomatic carriers as well, so they may not display illness but can pass it to someone else.”

Strickland-Gilliard said the state health disparity task force is in its early stages of seeking out answers as to why COVID-19 hits black, Latino and impoverished communities so hard. Its members are working with grassroots organizations to improve data collection.

The LGBTQ community suggested that gender identity be added to COVID-19 testing forms, which already included racial and ethnic identities. State officials recently said compliance in providing such detailed information had risen from 30-35% in the early stages of the pandemic to 70-75%, “but what we are aiming for is 100%,” Strickand-Gilliard said.

The level of detail in COVID-19 testing data varies widely at the county, state and federal level, and testing remains difficult to access for some communities. As of June 1, “58% of race is not reported (when tests are administered), and little data is available on ethnicity,” according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health website.

The city of Philadelphia, which has the state’s largest black population at 44%, reports on its COVID-19 website that African Americans account for 46.8% of its cases, the highest number of coronavirus cases of any racial or ethnic group in the city.

“It is hard to know if the risk of getting COVID is higher for African Americans than for other groups, because we do not know the race of many COVID cases. We are working hard to fill in this missing information,” according to the website.

Jasiri X said 1Hood has found that the creation of “What Black Pittsburgh Needs to Know ...” was “one of the smartest things we did.”

“For us, the next steps are to be wherever these pressing issues are that are facing our community,” he said. “I think one of the things that the coronavirus showed us was how the systems of structural racism are hurting our community. I mean, we live with them every day and sometimes they become normalized.

“Now we have this global pandemic and we realize, wait a second, this can mean life or death for somebody in our community.”

Walker-Montgomery says there can be positive change by putting the focus on the inequities of health care and police brutality in black communities.

“People realize what we’ve already known, and we can’t go back to the systemic racism that has existed,” she said. “There is going to be a recovery process and whatever it is, it is going to be for all marginalized populations.”

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Online:

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Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com