COVID-19 makes racial health disparities more pronounced in Chattanooga, U.S.

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / We Over Me co-founder Lakweshia Ewing, left, helps unload and stack produce boxes at We Over Me's "Pop-Up Produce Stand" at East Ridge High School on Thursday, July 9, 2020 in East Ridge, Tenn. We Over Me provided fresh produce boxes free of charge.

The latest data about a new disease is underlining the decades-old saying.

"When white people catch a cold, Black people catch the flu," said LaDarius Price, community outreach specialist at Cempa Community Care. "That's the absolute reality for a lot of us."

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Price spent years working to address health inequalities in the community, such as access to fresh food and mental health care. His job, as he described it, was to help people who look like him have the same opportunities for healthy life as millions of other Americans.

Several Chattanooga ZIP codes, representing the most diverse parts of the city, rank among the lowest in the state for health outcomes. According to a 2019 report, Black residents of the county are more likely than whites to die or get sick from things like diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and cancer.

"Now you throw coronavirus in the mix, and it's why those underlying health issues are really a big factor in why we're passing," Price said.

The virus is widening existing health inequalities in the county and across the country. According to data released by The New York Times from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black and Hispanic people in America are three times more likely to be infected and two times more likely to die from the virus than white people.

A similar disparity is continuing in Chattanooga with around half of all confirmed cases in the county among Hispanic residents. Since July 1, cases among Black residents increased by 40%, more than double the increase among white residents.

Despite accounting for just 6% of the county population, Hispanic residents are a third of all local deaths. Similarly, Black residents represent 19% of the population and now a third of the deaths.

Six deaths reported so far this month have been Black residents.

(READ MORE: While COVID-19 spreads across Chattanooga, the area's most at-risk communities remain hardest hit)

The recent deaths, following what was already the deadliest month for the virus in June, is concerning for local health care providers and underscores the risks of the virus.

Price has gone months without seeing his grandmother, a beloved figure in his life. But he cannot take the risk. He is at testing sites multiple times a week, he said. His job often involves calling area residents who have been affected. He hears their sobering stories.

"It's surreal for me to hear somebody say, 'My wife, I lost my wife to this. I lost my husband to this. I lost my grandmother,'" he said.

In May, the Unity Group of Chattanooga called on the Hamilton County Health Department to address racial disparities in the effects of COVID-19 and provide greater transparency by releasing testing data based on race and ethnicity. At the time, there were 376 confirmed cases in the county and a disparity among Hispanic residents was beginning to emerge.

The health department does not collect data on who is being tested, so it remains unclear whether testing is reaching all members of the community. Higher numbers of cases among certain demographics could be a result of focused testing efforts, such as those conducted by Cempa, Clinica Medicos and at local churches. However, this remains unclear without demographic data on negative tests.

Along with partnering with groups to create hyperlocal testing opportunities, the health department has worked to translate information into Spanish and share it through existing community groups and on Spanish-language radio.

Yet, some people have been critical of the county's response in bringing testing directly to communities, particularly those with large Black or Hispanic populations.

Charlotte S.N.N. Williams, pastor of Eastdale Village Community United Methodist Church, said the slow response and the many inconsistencies - such as a weeklong dispute over whether free masks handed out by the state were a public health hazard - have left many feeling overlooked.

"The spike in our community is probably because we haven't been seen as a priority," Williams said. "There hasn't been a laser focus on ensuring how we can reduce these numbers."

As the coronavirus pandemic in Hamilton County nears four months since being identified here with no sign of ending soon, those on the front line are working to increase support for those living with the virus and those who face risks every day.

Last month, Cempa began handing out food boxes at its testing sites. The produce, in partnership with La Paz Chattanooga, the Chattanooga Area Food Bank and We Over Me, is giving people the food they need if they are still without work if they need to isolate because of a possible positive test result, said Shannon Stephenson, CEO of Cempa.

"There are growing needs," Stephenson said. "When you're asking somebody to isolate, there are needs that must be met while they're isolating."

Food insecurity in the region is increasing, with a Feeding America study showing a projected 40% increase in overall food insecurity and a more than 50% increase for Hamilton County and the surrounding area.

Groups like We Over Me have been central in food distribution throughout the city since March. Several times a week, volunteers are handing out food boxes, such as providing free produce at East Ridge High School on Thursday.

(READ MORE: Health disparities in Hamilton County create high risk for COVID-19, analysis shows)

Other resources have emerged to fill the needs created by surviving the health and economic toll of the virus.

La Paz helped 175 families with its Latinx Relief Fund, providing one-time $500 payments to families, especially those who may not be eligible for other relief programs. This week, the city of Chattanooga received a $50,000 grant through Accelerator for America to continue the fund.

In June, Tennessee United launched its El Pueblo Fund to provide direct assistance to families affected by the virus. Esai Navarro, an organizer with the group, said the fund meets needs that were not being met by traditional assistance programs.

For example, a group could write a check to pay for rent but the check still needed to be delivered to a landlord or someone had to go out to buy medicine. Things like this were keeping people from isolating, she said.

Like Navarro, Price said too many people are having to choose between the COVID-19 test they need and the potential of missing work, especially those who are providing for other family members.

"For some people, they can't miss not just a paycheck, they can't miss hours off their paycheck," Price said. "That's the lives some people are living."

Contact Wyatt Massey at [email protected] or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.