HAMPTON ROADS, Va. - A News 3 investigation has revealed disturbing COVID-19 death rates among those in minority communities.
“He sent me a text message at 6:44 on the 24th, and it said, 'I love you,'” said Smith.
Smith saved the screen shots from the last conversation.
He was in Detroit, and she was Hampton Roads when Fields got sick with COVID-19. It was the beginning of the pandemic, and at first, they didn’t know what was wrong, but then Smith said he stopped answering her phone calls and text messages.
Desperate for answers, Smith said she was unable to reach him, eventually finding him after calling hospitals.
“When he went to the hospital in Detroit, they did not have any rooms for him. They said he should be in the ICU, but they didn’t have any beds. They were literally just waiting for people to die so that he could get a room,” said Smith.
But sadly, Fields is one of more than 640,000 Americans who lost their lives to COVID-19.
“He never woke up. He never opened his eyes,” said Smith.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that minorities have suffered a disproportionate burden of COVID-19 deaths.
According to the CDC, one study of selected states and cities showed that 34% of deaths were among non-Hispanic Black people, though this group accounts for only 12% of the total U.S. population. The study was done in 2020.
News 3 looked into death rates in Virginia. Statewide, the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) reports that 2,961 Black people have died of COVID-19 as of early September. That’s about 25% of the total amount of deaths, but the Black population in Virginia is about 20%, according to the U.S. Census.
Dr. M. Norman Oliver is the State Health Commissioner. He said the Black and Brown communities, along with the rural communities across the state, have been hit hard by COVID-19.
Oliver said the issue is complex, but mentioned that these communities are dealing with systemic discrimination against them.
News 3 compared local death rates to population rates.
In Norfolk, 288 people died of COVID-19 as of early September. One hundred and eighty-one of the victims were Black, and 92 were white, according to the health department.
Black people make up about 63% of deaths, while white people make up 32% of deaths - but the population in Norfolk is 47% white and 41% Black, according to the U.S. Census.
Higher COVID-19 death rates compared to population for African Americans were also found in Chesapeake, Virginia Beach, Portsmouth and Hampton.
“It's disturbing to see such widespread kinds of inequities across racial categories in cities here in Hampton Roads and other localities. Unfortunately, this is something that we've been seeing across the entire Commonwealth,” said Oliver.
Oliver cited several reasons. He said minority groups are disproportionately affected by chronic medical conditions, have less access to healthcare and are more likely to be essential employees.
According to the CDC, conditions in the places where people live, learn, work, play and worship affect a wide range of health risks and outcomes - such as COVID-19 infection, severe illness and death - and they say the conditions are known as social determinants of health. The CDC says long-standing inequities in social determinants of health, such as poverty and access to healthcare, that affect these groups are interrelated and influence a wide range of health and quality of life risks and outcomes.
“They have that double whammy,” said Oliver, “having a higher burden of chronic disease, which sets them up for bad effects from COVID and then being in jobs that put them right in the public face and more exposed to COVID. Then, layer that with a lack of access to real adequate healthcare, the number of uninsured in those populations is much higher than it is elsewhere, and they have less ability to get the kind of medical care that they need.”
Providing medical care to the uninsured is why Golden Bethune-Hill founded the Community Free Clinic of Newport News.
“I talk with people every chance I get about the virus and why it’s important to get tested,” said Bethune- Hill.
“Because of systemic racism and health disparities, that puts a lot of doubt in people's mind because we always had to fight to get healthcare. We’ve always had to fight to get a job, had to fight to put food on the table, so it’s been a fight,” said Gaylene Kanoyton, the president of Celebrate Healthcare.
Celebrate Healthcare is an advocacy group, and Kanoyton has been fighting to get as many people vaccinated as possible by holding events throughout the region.
“We have never ever experienced something to this level before, and I hope we will never have to do it again,” said Kanoyton.
She, like many others, is disturbed by the number of minorities dying from COVID-19.
“It's extremely upsetting to most of us, and we wanted to do something about it,” said Oliver.
The health department said they’ve worked to increase vaccination and testing efforts in minority and rural communities.
“We want to make sure that we are vaccinating them - at least at the same rate that we're doing the white population, if not better. I mean, you could argue that they need it even more because they're getting hit so hard,” said Oliver.
An AP poll found that Black and Hispanic Americans are about twice as likely as white Americans to say they have a close friend or relative who has died of COVID-19.
People like Smith, who lost the love of her life. She said he was a veteran, a chef and a man who worked to help others.
“He was such a light, and he was so full of life. Even as large as he was, it’s easy for him to walk into a room and for people to feel intimidated, but as soon as he shared that smile, it was like the gates of Heaven opened up,” said Smith.
She said he passed away so quickly that his death was a shock.
“I really do believe that he saved a lot of people’s lives and he will allow the light to be shined, not just on this issue but a deeper issue in our community about sharing information and trusting systems,” said Smith.