Unequal impact: Black Northeast Mississippians discuss impact of COVID-19 within their communities
April 19-- Apr. 19--On March 21, less than two months after the death of his wife, L.C. Conner was not feeling well and told his son so.
In the days following, Marquel Conner, of New Albany, saw his father continue to ail, reporting flu-like symptoms. Testing identified the presence of COVID-19. His health continued to deteriorate.
Within short order, the elder Conner was taken by ambulance to the hospital in New Albany, and was then later transferred to North Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo. He fought the disease there for a week and then died on April 1.
In that last week, Conner's family was only able to visit him through the Facetime app. Marquell Conner and his siblings only saw their father in person in his final moments.
In those moments, they offered comfort, and thanks for his life as a devoted Christian, hardworking father and loving grandfather.
"It was just hard to see him go like that," Marquel Conner said. "He died within an hour of us being able to go and visit him. It kind of makes me feel like he waited on us."
When Marquel Conner lost his father to COVID-19 on April 1, official reports had not yet sketched out the brutal impacts of the pandemic on black Mississippians. But local communities were feeling the effects all the same.
As of last Thursday, data from the Mississippi State Health Department indicates that 56 percent of all then-known COVID-19 patients in the state were black. Of the then-current number of deaths linked to COVID-19, 66 percent were black. Black residents are about 38 percent of Mississippi's total population, making them over represented in the state's known cases of the novel coronavirus.
This same pattern of over representation can be seen in Northeast Mississippi, according to county-level demographic statistics released by the State Health Department. In Lee County, for example, 45 percent of known COVID-19 patients are black, but only about 30 percent of the total population is black.
In the more rural Tippah County, the population is only about 17 percent black, but some 62 percent of known COVID-19 patients are black.
And in Union County, where L.C. Conner lived, five of the nine known cases are black residents there.
The impact of COVID-19 has been widespread, but has acutely preyed upon existing healthcare inequalities that afflict black Mississippians.
Cardiovascular disease, lung disease, diabetes, hypertension and obesity are the most common underlying conditions linked to COVID-19 deaths here in Mississippi. Dr. Vernon Rayford, an internal medicine and pediatrics physician with North Mississippi Health Services, said these very diseases are more common among African Americans nationally and within Mississippi.
"Coronavirus is highlighting it. It's kind of magnifying that crisis already, so my recommendation for folks is to kind of understand what their risks are," Rayford said.
He cited poverty, lack of insurance and lack of access to healthcare as key drivers of the chronic diseases more commonly found in the African American community. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, black people accounted for 31 percent of those in poverty in 2018. At the same time, approximately 16 percent, or 151,300, of non-elderly black people reported not having health insurance.
Education can also play a role in the management of underlying conditions. Nancy Hooks, a member of the health ministry at White Hill Missionary Baptist Church, owns Hooks Diabetes and Medicine Clinic. She has seen the higher rates of underlying conditions firsthand.
"People will wait until their condition is very bad and then seek help from the E.R., but a lot of times won't follow up on a monthly or maybe three month basis," Hooks said.
Rayford said more information is needed about the relationship between underlying health conditions and COVID-19 risk. For now, he recommends people at least make an effort to understand their risk based on family history and their own medical history. He also recommends anyone with chronic conditions consider treatment for their long term health.
Concerns also exist that African Americans are at higher risk due to economic factors that put them in high-risk, public facing jobs.
"A lot of what I'm seeing is Afro-American people are working more positions in essential business, like frontline, cash registers, things like that, and that could be a problem in the community if they're not having proper masks and things to do their job," said Aaron Washington of A Plus Barber Shop
Ripley resident Sharon Gregory, a general NAACP member, knows essential employees who work because they feel they have no choice if they want to keep their job and provide for their family.
And if that job goes away, unemployment benefits remain frustratingly elusive to access right now, even as the federal government has increased the cash value of those benefits.
"I had one lady say she literally went to sleep on the phone trying to get her unemployment started, and when she woke up that morning, she was still on hold," Gregory said.
"Everyone is scared"
In rural Tippah County, which has some of the highest numbers of per capita infections in the state, black residents are dealing with daily fears about case numbers.
It was almost a month ago when Tippah County resident and body shop owner Rick Knox first experienced COVID-19 symptoms. Knox said he has no health conditions aside from sinus issues, and assumed those issues were the cause of his symptoms.
After multiple shots offered no relief, and the symptoms worsened, Knox was finally tested for COVID-19. At the time, Knox said he felt fine, yet X-rays sufficiently worried his doctors enough to transfer him to Tupelo for treatment.
Knox is now in recovery and considers it a miracle of God that he avoided serious impacts. Even though he never felt at serious risk, he knew that was not the case for others. During his time in the hospital, he shared a room with someone who died.
"A lot of the community was in panic. This community is small," Knox said. "From businesses just kind of closing down to everything slowing down and just a worry, but also this community has been very supportive."
Local support has been strong, including online encouragement. During his time in the hospital, another shop owner reached out to do work for him so he wouldn't be without, and various motorcycle groups dropped food off at his house.
Gregory, the Tippah County NAACP member, feels that the reported numbers understate the impact.
As of Friday, Tippah County had 45 reported cases and six deaths related to COVID-19, yet Gregory said there is widespread belief that the actual numbers are higher and lagging behind the reported numbers.
"Everybody's scared. Everyone's trying to take precaution, but they're not putting it out where people can understand," Gregory said.
With statistics now in hand, African American physicians and community members in Tupelo are educating their community about the risks.
"We have to figure out some way to just get the truth out there and know that this thing is affecting us and is actually killing the African American community," said Robert Hall, co-chair of Project E.L.E.C.T.
Dr. Eric Lewis, chief of staff at North Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo and partner of the Orthopaedic Institute of North Mississippi, said he began looking at the potential impact of COVID-19 on African Americans early after the disease entered the area.
"They were starting to see a potentially increased number of patients who had advanced renal failure who were also affected with the COVID-19, were primarily African American, and at that point, I began to look for what was going on in the African American community," Lewis said.
Before the state released racial data, Lewis heard rumors passed along that African Americans were less susceptible to the disease. Once the Health Department's numbers underscored the disparities, however, Lewis spoke with North Mississippi Health Service CEO Shane Spees about enlisting black medical professionals to dispel rumors and educate black residents.
He assembled a team of about 10 people, including two non-physicians, to be a part of a video project.
"The point of the video is not so much to bring a lot of new information, but to emphasize the point that as African Americans, because of the disproportionate impact it's having on us, we have to take this seriously," Lewis said.
The video was produced and edited by NMMC, with Project E.L.E.C.T. and community partners, the Community Development Foundation and City of Tupelo, helping get the information out by publicizing it.
Jeffery Daniel, pastor of White Hill Missionary Baptist Church and chairman of Project E.L.E.C.T., said COVID-19 is not the first time the group has tackled healthcare issues. The group includes black leaders in business, faith, health care and education and works to address issues within the African American community. The group plans additional educational efforts, including discussions of the underlying economic conditions.
"Because we are a community of people who do not have the resources that some other communities have ... (some) homes are being filled with probably two or three generations of people within one home, so social distancing creates a problem," Daniel said. "Folks don't have the luxuries that some other communities do, and so it's just a reflection of the years of economic differences."
The refrain of "stay safe" and "follow health guidelines" has become familiar for those worried about COVID-19, but those words take on a more urgent meaning for those who have lived with and continue to see the impact.
Marquel Conner remembers conversions with his family about the need for caution back during spring break in March. His father had respiratory issues, using a machine to sleep at night, and severe allergies, and was trying to avoid others. Marquel Conner now tries to encourage others to open their eyes on the importance of health and taking care of themselves.
"Until there is a solution, I think that all citizens should take this situation seriously and follow the guidelines and take the necessary precautions that keep you, your children or your family safe, and we just wait it out until it's over," Marquel Conner said.
L.C. Conner's funeral was April 13. Because of current restrictions on public gatherings, the experience was vastly different from the celebration that the younger Conner wanted to give his father.
Marquel Conner, his siblings, their children and some of L.C. Conner's sisters were the only ones present.
"My heart goes out to anyone who's having to have a funeral during this pandemic," Marquel Conner said. "You don't get a second chance at funerals."