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Coronavirus Testing Is Lacking in Black Ohio Communities

Even though they live in ZIP codes with some of the lowest numbers of coronavirus cases, “Black Ohioans are hospitalized or infected by COVID-19 at more than twice their share of the overall population.”

(TNS) — Margo Sommerville always fears for the community when her personal business takes off.

The director of Sommerville Funeral Home in Akron, Ohio, where she presides over City Council, has been burying more members of her black community than usual.

Most come from nursing homes overwhelmed by the coronavirus pandemic. She received her first customer this week from a state correctional facility near Columbus, where an Akron man became infected and died.

Throughout her community, she's concerned about cramped living quarters — where COVID-19 thrives — in senior high-rises, low-income apartments and public housing where black residents with higher rates of underlying health issues live.

These are the "perfect storm" places where the top county health official and the mayor of Akron are flying blind. There's no ample testing to identify and isolate the infected then trace their recent contacts before the disease spreads into the community, as it likely has already.

"We don't know how widespread it is. We just know that it's widespread," Summit County Health Commissioner Donna Skoda said of disease's prevalence in under-tested areas.

Skoda said she's especially worried about low-income high-rises with lots of vulnerable seniors, like the hundreds of public housing units at Saferstein Towers I and II off Diagonal Road.

"I would love to be in there [testing]," said Skoda, whose agency is hampered by a testing supply shortage. "I can tell you exactly how many people live there, how many tests we need. Yeah, we would love to be doing that."

Black Ohioans are hospitalized or infected by COVID-19 at more than twice their share of the overall population. That's true locally, where black residents are packed in ZIP codes with the lowest number of confirmed cases in Summit County.

"The numbers are low because we aren't testing people," said Councilwoman Tara Samples, whose city ward covers downtown, Cascade Valley and University Park, the only areas in Summit County with zero confirmed cases outside of the uninhabited Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

"It's almost like a false negative," said County Councilwoman Veronica Sims, whose district overlaps with majority black neighborhoods represented by Samples and Sommerville. "The lack of testing is the issue. That's just the reality."

Lifesaving Data

Sims doesn't want her community impaired by false hope. "I think that it plays a role in the real-life data that we can share with those communities to help keep them safe," she said.

The trio of black woman question the decision — with all that's know about the most vulnerable and marginalized people in Summit County and without consulting local officials — to open the first community-based testing site a half-hour walk from the nearest public bus stop down in Portage Lakes, a community where black residents account for just 2 percent of the local population, compared to 14 percent countywide and 30 percent in Akron.

In a couple weeks, the testing site — one of 25 selected by Rite Aid with guidance from the White House Coronavirus Task Force, input from Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine's office and funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — has unmasked COVID-19 in Portage Lakes at a level experts can only assume in the core of Akron.

It's apparent to local black leaders that buried in the numbers of dead, sick and untested, there lies another example of long-standing, systemic and persistent racial inequity.

The Rite Aid testing site opened April 20 on the same day DeWine publicly recognized racial disparities in the statewide COVID-19 data before launching a "Minority Health Strike Force."

This first testing site for the general public ended up in southern Summit County, where a second testing site run by the Cleveland Clinic has since opened up in Green. Black leaders are wondering if the intention was to avoid the inner city.

"It almost looks like they did," said Samples.

"I've been a strong advocate to test in the African-American community first and right away, whether it be in senior housing or anywhere else," Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan told the public this week in his latest virtual town hall.

Horrigan said work must be done to identify those most vulnerable to the virus "and get them the health care they need."

Rite Aid approached Horrigan and Skoda after, not before, it settled with state and federal governments on the Portage Lakes location. A spokesman for the company said traffic and impact on neighbors was a "major factor" in picking this and other locations, including a pharmacy in Parma where 2 percent of the population is black compared to 29 percent in all of Cuyahoga County.

DeWine's office did not answer calls seeking comment for this story.

False Perception

It's obvious that wherever officials test, they find the virus.

County health commissioners have cautioned that mapping cases by ZIP codes can be misleading, showing hot and cold spots based not on the prevalence of the disease but access to testing.

Along socioeconomic and racial lines, this is apparent in Summit County.

After 3' weeks of testing at the Rite Aid in Portage Lakes, confirmed COVID-19 cases in that 44319 ZIP code went from single digits — the lowest possible ranking on a countywide map — to 69 this week. Only two other Summit County ZIP codes — 44278 and 44224 — now have more confirmed cases with 75 and 74, respectively.

High case counts in these other two ZIP codes, which cover mostly Tallmadge, Stow and Silver Lake, are also tied to more rigorous testing, in this case to contain nursing home outbreaks.

"That's what's happening in these nursing homes. They're testing everybody and finding half the people either have it right now or have had this disease, but they don't even have symptoms," Skoda said.

The reverse is also true: Where residents do not avail themselves of testing — whether because symptoms are too mild to warrant testing or a trip to the emergency room, or residents lack primary care physicians needed to prescribe testing — confirmed case counts are artificially low.

This is likely why University Park, an Akron neighborhood with the city's lowest median age of 21, has zero recorded cases. The young are largely asymptomatic.

No ZIP code touching downtown Akron has more than 10 confirmed cases, the lowest in the county. Yet local officials are well aware that these ZIP codes form a concentric ring of densely packed housing, senior apartments and the city's only majority black neighborhoods outside of West Akron.

More Money, Bad Results

With recent congressional approval, HHS announced Thursday that 51 Ohio-based community health and social service agencies would share $17,478,444, including $138,304 for Asian Services In Action Inc. and $419,374 for AxessPointe Community Health Centers, to expand testing, "especially for underserved and minority populations."

That hasn't been the case, at least in Ohio.

Data reported to Health and Human Services' Health Resources & Services Administration by community participants shows that America's black population has been equally served tests through the program, but not so in Ohio.

With 14 percent of the American population, blacks account for 15 percent of those tested nationally in the HHS-backed program administered by states. In Ohio, blacks account for 14.3 percent of the state population but only 5 percent of patients tested and a staggering 22 percent of positive tests.

©2020 the Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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