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New Pittsburgh Coalition Tackles Racial Inequities And The Pandemic


Black deaths from COVID-19 are higher than white deaths due in part to institutional racism and social impediments, such as poverty. The Pittsburgh-based Black COVID-19 Equity Coalition is a group of public health researchers, businesspeople and elected officials working to address those factors as a way to secure better health and economic outcomes for the black community during the pandemic.

One issue the coalition is working to understand is why stateand nationaldata show an uptick in fatalities during 2020, but not all of these deaths are attributed to COVID-19.

“There’s either potentially under reporting issue, or there are other things that are probably related to COVID that’s not being captured as COVID,” said coalition member Tiffany Gary-Webb, an epidemiologist at the University of Pittsburgh. “It could be people who were symptomatic for it, and didn't get hospitalized and they never got tested. And maybe died in their homes.”

It’s also possible that during life-threatening medical emergencies, like a heart attack or stroke, some people are now more reluctant to go to the hospital due to risk of coronavirus exposure.

Data on the local and nationallevel show that black people are hospitalized and die from COVID-19 at higher rates than whites. Understanding the cause of this discrepancy in non-COVID deaths might reveal additional inequities.

Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
A medical professional takes a knee for 8 minutes and 46 seconds as part of demonstration organized by the group White Coats for Black Lives Matter outside of UPMC Presbyterian Hospital in Oakland on Friday, June 5, 2020.

Other issues the coalition is working to address include getting black Pittsburghers trained to work as contact tracers and testing access. Gary-Webb, who also chairs the epidemiology section of the American Public Health Association, said data scientists affiliated with the coalition were part of the push to get coronavirus testing at the federally qualified health centers in Allegheny County.

“What we did is try to map out where we thought communities of need would be. We use things like the percentage of black families in poverty and even just percentage of blacks in the county," she said. "Then we overlaid where the federally qualified health centers were located, which, you know, they're located in communities of need and found that we could really increase access to testing with that model."

Well before COVID-19, black Americans and Allegheny County had poorer health outcomes than whites. For example, black women in Pittsburgh are more likely to die during pregnancy than their peers in 97 percent of U.S. cities.

Ideally, said Gary-Webb, this coalition will exist long after the pandemic abates and can help build a medical system that creates better outcomes for black people in western Pennsylvania.

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.