CLARKSBURG, W.Va. – West Virginia’s new COVID-19 Advisory Commission on African American Disparities held its first teleconference on Monday as it begins its mission to gain a better understanding of the effects of this disease on the black population in West Virginia.

The task force is made up of four groups of stakeholders:

  • A community grassroots group, consisting of Romelia Hodges, who has led contact tracing efforts in Marion, Harrison and Monongalia counties related to a coronavirus outbreak in the black church community, Mike Jones, who is with the Kanawha Institute for Social Research in Action, and Owens Brown, president of the state conference for NAACP chapters
  • A healthcare and health systems group, whose members include Tiffany Samuels, with the WVU Cancer Institute, Keisha Saunders, a nurse practitioner in McDowell County, and Joylynn Fix, with the WV Offices of the Insurance Commissioner
  • Members of the West Virginia Legislature, including Del. Sean Hornbuckle, D–Cabell, Del. Caleb Hanna, R–Nicholas, and Sen. Patricia Rucker, R–Jefferson
  • Members of faith-based organizations, including Pastor Rahsaan Armand, from Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Clarksburg, Rev. James Patterson, from Institute Church of the Nazarene, and a representative from Morning Star Baptist Church in Fairmont, who was not able to be on the initial call

Jill Upson, executive director of the WV Herbert Henderson Office of Minority Affairs, led the meeting, which also included West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources Secretary Bill Crouch; West Virginia’s coronavirus “czar” Dr. Clay Marsh; state health officer Dr. Cathy Slemp; epidemiologist Sarah Sanders, Ph.D.; Stephanie Moore, from the Office of Community Health Systems and Health Promotion; and Lt. Col. Tanya McGonegal, with the West Virginia National Guard.

Patterson addressed the panel and raised concerns about not just the coronavirus pandemic, but also general health issues among the black population, with a focus on the social determinants of health, which include the conditions of the environments in which people live and work.

Crouch stated that there are a number of issues the task force could explore down the road, but he said there is an immediate one that needs attention.

“For now, I think the focus of this group needs to be, the pandemic, the current pandemic that we’re dealing with, and trying to make sure we, we address those issues. So, wouldn’t rule that out down the road, but I think our immediate needs are COVID-19,” said Crouch.

Slemp touched on some of the data gaps health experts have encountered, specifically, a lack of racial data for laboratory testing for coronavirus.

“There is no race data, you typically, on laboratory reports. And, or very, very seldom is there. So, we are actually trying to shift…making sure that what we can do, um, where we will change that. So, for instance, we’re looking to, um, with our laboratory, um, submission form for our state lab, making sure that that is on there,” said Slemp. “Because I think it’s really important that we have, um, that data, not just on the confirmed cases, but also on the individuals testing because then we get better understandings of testing rates.”

Slemp also noted this lack of racial data is a national issue.

In terms of needing a doctor’s note to get testing, Slemp said this is not the case; rather, the key point is to have a healthcare provider who can follow up with a patient for any necessary treatment.

“The key thing with having…a healthcare provider link is that you have someone to follow up with the results,” said Slemp. “So, that’s the key thing is making sure that you’ve got a local contact we could link somebody into care.”

Before the first call ended, Crouch stressed an important goal for the task force as it continues to meet.

“We need input, in terms of how do we raise awareness in these communities that we’re going to be testing? We need that right away. How do we get folks to turn out and increase our numbers here, so we can really get a better idea of what’s going on?” said Crouch.

Moving forward, the task force plans to meet twice a week, on Mondays and Fridays.