Coronavirus testing comes to black neighborhoods, where residents fear health disparities


Jeanne Kuang,

Fearful of a pandemic that has grimly exposed racial health disparities across the country, dozens of Wilmington-area residents turned out Thursday afternoon to get screened for the coronavirus in Wilmington's majority-black Southbridge neighborhood.

They formed a line that was wrapped around the block within minutes of the screening event beginning. 

It was one of three screening and testing events held this week in Wilmington, where a majority of residents are people of color and the poverty rate is twice that of the state.

It's not yet clear what the racial breakdown of coronavirus infections looks like in Delaware. Gov. John Carney said two weeks ago it would begin to track racial information and the state has not released any additional information to the public

Thirty-one states have released racial data in coronavirus deaths, and Johns Hopkins University found that in those states, black Americans accounted for 13% of the population but 34% of deaths.

Yvette Gbemudu, chief medical officer for Henrietta Johnson Medical Center, which hosted the screening in its parking lot, said one factor in potential disparities is a higher prevalence of diabetes, asthma and high blood pressure. These are known as "co-morbidities" – illnesses that raise the risk of serious complications or death from the virus.

"Those illnesses run rampant" among black residents, she said. "It's important to bring these tests to communities where those diseases exist." 

Another concern in Wilmington, she said, is the near-impossibility for patients who live in close quarters with many family members to isolate themselves if infected.

Brian Perry, a doctor of emergency medicine at Bayhealth Hospital in Dover, said he got screened because he's been treating coronavirus patients. One of his patients, an African American woman who's an essential worker, showed up with coronavirus symptoms, he said. 

"I told her you need to quarantine for 14 days," he said. "She said, '14 days? I have kids and rent is due.' I am seeing a lot of people who need to work. The system is not set up for a lot of minorities to stay at home for 14 days, and staying home even involves being around other people."

Fears over those inequities were high on the minds of black residents at the walk-up screening site, and a caucus of black Delaware lawmakers, who helped to organize the event.

There were antibody tests for about 100 people provided by Saint Francis Hospital, said Gbemudu. Those tests were not for the virus specifically but would indicate whether someone had been exposed to a severe infection.

"It's about time they did something in this neighborhood, a low-income one," said Southbridge resident Linda Pearson-Byrd, who had knocked on doors to alert her neighbors of the screening event. "In our neighborhoods, we're a little disadvantaged."

She said she had a sore throat and stood in line hoping to receive a test to make sure she wasn't infected with the virus. She didn't want to pass the virus on to her daughter and daughter's father, whom she said has "all kinds of health issues."

A Wilmington resident from the city's north side who would only identify herself as Marcella said hearing of racial disparities in coronavirus deaths nationwide drove her to the screening site.

"African Americans have the highest risk because of the neighborhoods we live in," she said. "A lot of us don't have the same opportunities as far as health care."

She hoped to receive a test to be on the safe side, because she and her mother, who she lives with, both have underlying health issues. 

The lawmakers said they want more testing and outreach specifically in minority neighborhoods.

"Our constituents, they want to get tested," said State Rep. Nnamdi Chukwuocha

It showed in the line in Southbridge.

Unlike other screening events which were drive-in, this one was a walk-up site, and more than 50 people stood on the sidewalks waiting, trying to stay six feet apart. Older residents brought chairs for the wait.

One frustrated Wilmington woman said she had been standing in line an hour to get screened. 

"This is why our communities are hardest hit," she said. "Why are my grandmothers waiting in this line? Why can't they wait in their cars?"

"This is disparity," another woman said. "In our own neighborhood."

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