West Side elected officials are calling for more resources from the city and the state to address the jarring disparities in health outcomes experienced by Black people in the face of the coronavirus epidemic.
A recent analysis by WBEZ found that black Chicagoans make up 70 percent of COVID-19 deaths despite representing under 30 percent of the city’s population.
Health inequalities experienced by Black residents and West Siders are a longstanding issue illustrated by the 16-year “death gap” in life expectancy between the Black, lower-income community of West Garfield Park versus upscale Streeterville.
Though it is clear Black communities struggling with health disparities are most at-risk, as of April 13, there were no testing sites for people to be screened for COVID-19 on the West Side, according to hospitals and elected officials. West Side residents exposed to coronavirus who do not yet need to be hospitalized are being directed to testing locations Downtown.
At an April 7 press conference at Loretto Hospital in Austin, State Rep. La Shawn Ford (8th), who represents the West Side, said that while the governor has is rallying supplies from the federal government including nearly 10 million masks, “none of that has come to the West Side of Chicago.”
Ford said as state government prepares to dedicate funding and resources to fight the economic and public health crises brought on by COVID-19, hospitals serving Black, low-income communities need to be the top priority since those communities are the most vulnerable to infection and loss of life.
According to Dr. Matthew Davis, Senior Vice President and Chief of Community Health Transformation at Lurie Children’s Hospital, West Side communities face a barrage of social circumstances that cause higher rates of underlying health conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease that cause the mortality of COVID-19 spike. That makes the lack of access to screening on the West Side a major issue, Davis said.
“What we need to get to quickly in Chicago is broad testing of population groups at the highest risk in order to help them get the health care they need as early in the illness as possible and also to help them protect others,” Davis said.
Much of the West Side is a food desert where people lack access to nourishing foods, and combined with the poor walkability and fewer opportunities for exercise, residents disproportionately suffer from cardiovascular disease. On top of that, high unemployment rates and lower income levels mean that folks in the area have less access to clinical care and medical advice.
“COVID-19 is a magnifying glass that is worsening the disparities that were already there,” Davis said.
Even complying with the statewide shelter-in-place order is a privilege difficult to afford for many on the West Side, he said.
“All the ways we are advised to take care of ourselves, especially social distancing, is much harder for populations that are living with fewer resources,” Davis said. “There’s more individuals within each housing unit. There’s less opportunity to social distance at home and at the workplace.”
Black folks on the West Side also make up a bulk of the front-line essential workers that don’t have the luxury of working from home and can’t afford to take time off, said Rodney Brown, executive director of the New Covenant Community Development Corporation and a member of the executive committee of the North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council.
“It’s mostly Black folks who are on the front line, putting themselves at risk to go to work and provide services to keep the economy going,” Brown said.
According to Brown, the community council did a survey to figure out what types of resources people in Lawndale are asking for to get through the crisis. The survey showed a desperate need for basic supplies like food, diapers, hand sanitizer, cleaning supplies and masks. But in the wake of hoarding and shortages at the few stores in the neighborhood, people have had to travel across town to get these basic necessities, further exposing them to risk since many rely on public transit.
Sinai Community Institute President Debra Wesley said the longstanding scarcity of basic assets, like stores or restaurants that deliver, makes distancing and getting supplies tough. “A lot of the hoarding that’s taking place, it makes it difficult for a community that couldn’t get those things anyhow,” she said.
Ford said since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned residents to wear masks when they leave the home, the government and nonprofits should be distributing masks since most people can’t get their hands on them without help. “The CDC is telling us that the worst is yet to come, but the supplies are not coming into the West Side of Chicago like they should,” Ford said.
Administrators at Loretto Hospital called on the government to supply more personal protective equipment for treating COVID-19 as the number of cases swells among the vulnerable West Side population served by the hospital. Hospital President George Miller said safety-net hospitals like Loretto, which receives 90 percent of its reimbursements through Medicare and Medicaid, cannot continue to provide quality care without funding and supplies from the government.
And since there are no sites for residents on the West Side to get screened, he would like for Loretto to get enough resources from the government to be able to offer critical testing services to fill the gap. “We would love to be a testing site for the West Side to get tested for the entire community. We just don’t have those resources at this time,” he said.
“We have enough for today. But we need to be prepared for the future and we need to get more resources, more PPE and testing,” Miller said.
Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago. Read more news at blockclubchicago.org.