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Suburban struggle: why the second wave of coronavirus is surging in new communities

Posted at 6:29 PM, Dec 01, 2020

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — For maybe the first time since this pandemic began, the predictions have been wrong.

Many anticipated the second wave of coronavirus cases to once again target the same Black and Brown communities it ravaged back in the spring months, but if you look at data coming into Western New York, that’s not the case.

“In this second wave we are seeing a greater preponderance of whites dying that we did earlier this year,” said Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz. “The African American percentage of fatalities is dropping to the lowest it’s been in quite some time to 15.4% which is just slightly off the actual population.”

Why were poor Black communities hit hardest the first time around? It was a question a task force was working on long before a pandemic was even a possibility.

The African American Health Disparities Taskforce was convened by Pastor George Nicholas in 2014 and worked to look at the negative factors affecting the health of people in these urban communities.

The findings were troubling.

“They are 300% more likely to have a chronic disease than a white person that lives outside of that community,” said Nicholas. “Those communities are going to actually live 10-12 fewer years than whites that don't live in those communities. That's clearly because of the social determinants of health.”

Social determinants of health were factors like fresh food deserts, lack of access to primary care, no nearby gyms or suitable outdoor exercise spaces like bike lanes in certain areas especially on Buffalo’s East Side, an area with a large portion of the city’s Black population.

“Part of our issues as African Americans and people of color is… you think you have access (to healthcare) cause you go to an emergency room, but that doesn’t mean we're connected to the system,” said Dr. LaVonne Ansari, CEO of the Community Health Center of Buffalo.

Dr. Ansari said fighting the coronavirus in communities of color the first time around was literally a fight for access — to testing.

Pastor Nicholas credits Erie County’s quick response for funding to saving lives this time around in urban or disadvantaged communities.

The county provided $2.7 million in funding for Covid Response Teams, it was paired with a $1.8 million grant from ECMC to total a nearly $4 million dollar effort to save Black lives.

These are teams of workers that were established at 25 inner-city churches across Western New York.

It is an effort to take care of people without access to information or resources.

“We got lists from the (Erie County) Board of Elections and other sources by zip code,” said Nicholas. “We just called people to check on them and we said how are you doing? What's going on? Do you need access to testing? Do you need food? Do you need primary care?”

If people didn’t answer the phone, they got a knock on the door.

“We know that three of the conditions that people most vulnerable: diabetes, heart disease, and asthma are things really prevalent in the Black community and we have to put forward some kind of a program, some kind of a plan to address these issues.”

Nicholas credits information, access, and CDC compliance with rates of transmission in the Black community falling, so why are they going up in the suburban affluent areas?

“Covid is a virus, Covid does not discriminate,” said Dr. Peter Winkelstein, the Executive Director of Health Informatics at the University at Buffalo’s Jacobs School of Medicine.

“Covid will get you no matter who you are and it doesn't stop it just keep going.”

Dr. Winklestein’s work focuses on the numbers.

He said the initial surge at the end of October was likely caused by factors that nobody could help: the colder weather and people moving inside where the virus spreads more easily.

“Transmission of the virus appears to have increased very suddenly towards the end of October, and not just a one-time thing, not just halloween parties or anything,” he said.

But, past that he says there are “complicated” factors for why some communities are seeing higher numbers than others this time around.

“In different communities that probably says something about the communities and something perhaps about behavior, and something perhaps about living conditions and something perhaps about the environment.”

Pastor Nicholas said the culprit is clear.

“It's behavior, I mean…what this pandemic has exposed is the tremendous selfishness in the American way of life.”

“A country with as many resources as the United States of America which has only 4% of the world's population, but 25% of the fatalities…that's 100% due to behavior.”

And one factor both agree on that’s causing an unnecessary spread: the emphasis on the economy in politics.

“Is there a reluctance to get tested by people whose jobs may be affected, or their ability to do their jobs may be affected by a positive test?” Questioned Dr. Winkelstein.

Nicholas said the government has failed to provide money to Americans directly and instead is placing a focus on business.

He added that if businesses are the only place people can go for money, that’s where Americans will be — healthy or infected.

“We could have averted this spread of this disease in this country but our national leadership…. was driven by profits, by money, and not really thinking about ‘What do we have to do first to keep people safe?’”