STORY by DOUGLAS JOHN IMBROGNO |WestVirginiaVille
NOTE: All interviews conducted with CDC guidelines of 6-feet of separation. Interviews showing subjects with masks off done with extended microphone.
HUNTINGTON, WV, May 23, 2020 | For Vic Simpson, the deaths caused by the Covid-19 virus in the United States are not just some increasing number, soon to pass the shocking total of 100,000 fatalities.
It’s personal. A relative of the Huntington resident, who was a Vietnam veteran, passed away recently from the virus in a New Jersey nursing home. Because of the infectious nature of the disease, the family was unable to have a service for their loved one. “It affected our family very deeply,” he said.
Simpson is concerned that not enough people in the African-American community view the virus with the gravity it deserves.
“It disturbs me when I go into some of these places now and I don’t see our youth taking this seriously, wearing masks or gloves. And it’s affecting our people more than anybody else. We need to step up and take it more seriously,” he said.
Taking the virus seriously was exactly what he was doing Friday morning. He sat in his car, in a row of vehicles whose drivers awaited word from a Huntington police officer, to drive down the street toward the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.
Simpson was among hundreds who showed up for the free drive-through (or walk-up) Covid-19 testing site, outside the church in the heart of Huntington’s African-American community.
Simpson was looking out for himself and his family.
“I’m in that high-risk category where you’re over 65, you’re diabetic, and want to get tested. There’s nothing wrong with knowing something that you don’t know. And that’s why I’m here. To get tested. And that’s a good thing that we’re starting to test in this neighborhood, to see what the problems are. If we do have a lot of positive cases, or if we don’t. And it’s something we need to know.”
Simpson, who has two daughters and a couple grandkids, was the first member of his immediate family to get tested Friday. But not the last. “My wife will be here tomorrow. So we’re just taking turns. I come today and they come tomorrow.”
FOR CABELL COUNTY COVID-19 TESTING SITES, CLICK HERE. FOR SITES ACROSS WEST VIRGINIA, CLICK HERE.
‘Covid is scary’
While part of the mission of the testing site is to get the measure of Covid-19’s impact on the city’s African-American community, the free tests are open to any Cabell County resident. They’re part of a statewide roll-out of free testing sites around West Virginia that people can find listed on Sen. Joe Manchin’s website, among other places.
While she waited to be tested, Leslie Nahodil, chatted car-to-car with another Huntington woman. She’s a long-time nurse who has seen it all. “I’ve been nurse for 40 years. I’ve done a little bit of everything in nursing. We were just talking about the fact I birthed a baby in the back of the an ambulance over on the Boone County ER parking lot.”
She tussled with her mask as she prepared to drive off for a Covid-19 test, a career nurse who does not take lightly the threat posed by the virus.
“The Covid is scary. The Covid is really scary,” said Nahodil.
‘About 20 Seconds’
“Put to the Test,” a WestVirginiaVille original video. Click the arrow to view.
While the virus has frightened everyone, Pastor Dr. James Redd Jr., of the 16th Street Baptist Church, wants everyone to know they should not be afraid of the kind of Covid-19 testing being offered in front of his church, which may involve a nasal or oral swab.
“Now, I know that some may be skeptical. Does the test hurt? Does it bother you?” he said. “No, it doesn’t. I was the first one to take a test. The only thing it does, it gives you a little burn once they get back far enough. But once it burns, they’re done. The whole testing process takes about 20 seconds.”
The stakes couldn’t be higher said the pastor. One member of his congregation has a relative in Ohio whose entire family came down with the virus. While others recovered, the father of the Ohio family died, he said.
“It was heartbreaking to me because no one person is more important than anybody else. But any life that we lose is a tragedy. So that aspect of it makes me realize that, hey, we need to be vigilant, and we need to be safe. We don’t need to be fearful. But we need to be cautious.”
That means, following CDC and local health department guidelines to the letter, said Redd. Wear masks. Maintain social distancing of 6 feet or more. Use hand sanitizers. Don’t touch our eyes, nose or face.
“This is not something that we should take as a joke. And because the person around you doesn’t want to wear a mask—don’t be like that person. Try to instruct them, ‘Hey, this is why I’m wearing a mask. I’m not wearing a mask, because I have anything —I’m wearing a mask to protect you, just in case I do have it and I’m asymptomatic. And in protecting you, I would expect for you to protect somebody else.’ That’s the message that we have to put out.
Better Answers Needed
The testing was being done by the Cabell-Huntington Health Department with help from West Virginia National Guard and Army Reserve units. It was ordered by Gov. Jim Justice, with assistance from the WV Office of Minority Affairs and the Huntington Black Pastors Ministerial Association.
Dr. Michael Kilkenny is the physician director of the Cabell Huntington Health Department. Because of what he called “a really rough, rocky start” in getting testing going nationally, people may feel testing is not available to them locally.
“We want to make sure that people change that perception and realize that it is available,” said Kilkenny. “It’s available here in this event and it’s available every day in Cabell County at different sites. So, that’s the main goal of it—is to increase awareness and make sure that people have access to it, especially if they’re getting sick.”
One aim of the Huntington testing is to better understand why Covid-19 appears to strike minority communities and the African-American community in particular harder than others, he said.
“We have not a full understanding of that yet. But certainly, there’s a historical realization that a lot of the African American community has a lower socio-economic status, less insurance coverage, less paid time off from lower paying jobs. And those folks have additional stresses,” he said.
There is also a higher rate of obesity and and diabetes in African-American communities, which coupled with Covid-19 can cause even more serious illness, said Kilkenny. “There is very much the same kind of risk in the white population. But the question then is: Does the white population also have a large number of people who have better access to health care, better access to testing, and fewer of these complications? So, I think that that those answers are not all there yet. Better answer will come with more experience with this disease.”
He said that so far there is little indication of a big disparity between African-American and Caucasian populations in Cabell County.
“As far as this disease statistic, we want to keep it that way. We want to make sure that at least our African-American population knows that they have access and that public health and the medical community have an understanding of their increased risk. And that we’re willing to make sure that we serve them and try to stop that disparity here in our area.”
‘A More Devastating Effect’
Bishop Pastor Charles Shaw of Huntington’s Real Life Christian Center Church is president of the Huntington Black Pastors Ministerial Association. He was tested Friday morning and planned to bring his wife to be tested later. Additional testing in minority communities may help toward figuring out why Covid-19 strikes these communities harder, he said.
“It’s it’s very interesting that once in the African-American community or the minority community at large, people of color, it seems to have a more devastating effect once they do have the virus. So, that’s curious. I think there’s some more things to be found out about that, why that happens like that. And, of course, I understand that some of it is because of pre-existing conditions. But I’m not convinced that that’s all the reason.”
“But it’s curious, and I’m glad that since that is the case, that the governor and the health department are coming to the community in Cabell County, so that we readily have access to it all the community people. But then it’s open to the whole of Cabell County.”
He explained why he and his family members were taking the test
“We have not been affected and don’t want to be affected. So, we’re going to get tested and I’m encouraging all my congregants and all of our community people, just come and get tested.”