UNITE Pinellas on tracking COVID-19 in the black community

Dr. Stephanie Reed, MPH and Tim Dutton, executive director of UNITE Pinellas

PINELLAS COUNTY — The “Equity Now” broadcast on WTMP reviews events through a lens of racial and health equity. Hosted by Carl Lavender, chief equity officer at Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg (FHSP), the program features conversations with local health experts, civic and political leaders, community activists, and stakeholders.

On May 30, Lavender was joined by Dr. Stephanie Reed, MPH and Tim Dutton, executive director of UNITE Pinellas.

As planning and quality assurance manager at Pinellas County Government’s Department of Health and Human Services, Reed works to ensure quality outcomes for all the services and contracts the county provides in the community.

She represents Pinellas County as a member of UNITE Pinellas, a collective of organizations working to increase income and race equity through county-wide systems change, led by Dutton.

Reed discussed the “COVID Tracker,” a dashboard she created for looking at county data in relation to race and health equity. As a social epidemiologist, Reed believed it was vital to develop the tracker to specifically investigate the impact of the disease on black and brown communities.

Reed shared that the data coming down from the state and county level are showing great proportions of COVID-19, but also believed there was a need to look deeper.

“I posited that it’s very important to look at the impact of COVID in terms of rates in our community, standardized against the population of communities across the state — so that we can really understand the impact of COVID-19 on communities of color.”

The COVID Tracker reveals the rates of COVID illness, hospitalization, and deaths, among “Blacks, whites and others” – which is the way the county collects racial data. It also collects those identifying as “Hispanics” across the three groups. Reed noted that the “other” population includes people identified as American Indian/Alaskan Native, Asian and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander.

Reed pointed to structural and institutional racism as the root cause of inequities and health disparities, such as the mortality and preterm birth outcomes in the black community and rates of heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes.

She noted, “Knowing the history of racism in America, it is appropriate to look at the impact by race and appropriate to look at the impact of racism on COVID-19.”

When Lavender asked how data could impact the course of COVID-19 rates in black and brown communities, Reed responded, “We shouldn’t wait for [increased negative outcomes] to happen; we should be mobilizing ourselves to test those communities to make sure that we don’t have a disproportionate impact.”

She referred to current statewide data, which already shows the highest number of deaths across the state are among blacks. Reed cautioned that while data has not shown that trend in Pinellas, getting accurate numbers would also “depend on how much we’re appropriately testing those populations.”

She noted that being proactive means ensuring appropriate resources, access to testing, and access to appropriate care.

Dutton reaffirmed the importance of Reed’s use of rates to track the racial data, rather than the proportional numbers used by the state of Florida, and referred to Reed’s writing on the case for analysis of rates by race. The COVID Tracker is available for viewing on the UNITE Pinellas and FHSP websites.

The conversation also covered the work and research Dutton and UNITE Pinellas are doing in other equity-related issues in the county. One of those issues noted Dutton – arrests and policing — is very much under a microscope with the recent spate of police killings, and was highlighted as a problem area in our county in UNITE Pinellas’ 2019 Equity Profile.

Dutton also referred to work UNITE Pinellas is doing with Senator Darryl Rouson around fees and fines, disproportionately impacting black and brown people in Pinellas County.

A current crisis is on the horizon: the looming rent crisis and the expiration of Gov. DeSantis’ moratorium on evictions.

“Florida has a very unkind eviction law — it is very unkind to tenants. And we’re working at the state level to look at that issue,” Dutton said. He noted that now, with the COVID-19 crisis leading to increased poverty and eviction, the issue is “really a big deal.”

Dutton and FHSP’s President and CEO Randall Russell have written at length on the impending crisis, including reiterating The Urban Institute’s five-point strategy for how state and local entities can maximize new federal funding and opportunities related to COVID-19 to help stabilize communities and protect individuals and families at risk.

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