Testing has opened up for the public in four communities this weekend in coordination with West Virginia’s minority health advisory group, but black leaders in the Eastern Panhandle are questioning their representation on the team.
George Rutherford, president of the Jefferson County branch of the NAACP, said the Eastern Panhandle’s representative on the advisory group, Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, is not the ideal person to be relaying their concerns to the state.
“Senator Rucker, I don’t have nothing against her, but she has no relationship at all with the black community. None at all,” said Rutherford, who has headed the Jefferson NAACP since 1974.
After the advisory group met Friday morning, Rucker said by phone that her responsibilities as a legislator — responding to constituent concerns and lobbying to bring resources to her district — do not change based on a person’s skin color.
“I believe that’s an absolute partisan attack,” she said. “I work with everyone in my community and in my district, and have a lot of African Americans that I have as friends and who reach out to me for help, and of course I help them just like I help everybody.”
The Rev. Ernest Lyles, of Shepherdstown, reiterated Rutherford’s concern that Rucker is not the person for the job.
“When it comes to the African American community, Senator Rucker is invisible. And now, a task force has been appointed to address the issue of COVID-19 in the African American community, and someone who is disconnected from the African American community is appointed to serve on that task force,” Lyles said by phone.
“I had absolutely nothing to do with being appointed or being selected,” Rucker said, “but this group was supposed to be to help people, and I don’t necessarily think you have to be an African American in order to help African Americans.”
Lyles questioned why Delegate Sammi Brown, D-Jefferson, one of only four black lawmakers in the West Virginia Legislature, was not selected to represent the Eastern Panhandle.
Jill Upson, who leads the advisory group as executive director of the Herbert Henderson Office of Minority Affairs, said Rucker is a woman of color, and comments questioning anyone’s ability to connect to certain groups of people are unfounded.
“We have a very significant Latino population in Jefferson County and, to me, she is the obvious choice,” Upson said by phone. “There is absolutely no reason why a woman of color should be questioned in her ability to serve this community.”
Rucker, who was born in Venezuela, moved to Montgomery County, Maryland, with her family as a child, according to her website. She was elected to the West Virginia Senate in 2016.
When the advisory group was first announced, Department of Health and Human Resources Secretary Bill Crouch said it was being formed to address racial disparities between white and black West Virginians during the coronavirus pandemic. But at the first group meeting on Monday, the needs of other demographics, including Hispanic West Virginians, were mentioned as needing to be addressed, Upson said.
As of Friday, “other” West Virginians make up 10.7% of positive cases. The state currently lists data for only black and white demographics. Rucker said the Hispanic community must be represented in the state, as well.
Dr. Zakee McGill, president of the NAACP’s Berkeley County branch, questioned why he was never contacted when the advisory group was being formed. He didn’t learn its members were already chosen until a reporter from a local newspaper asked him for comment on it.
“I did not even get looped into this. I’m a medical doctor; I’m the president of the Berkeley County NAACP,” he said. “I could have immediately identified people that would have had good ideas, I had the pulse of the community, connections in the community.”
McGill’s concern now lies with the communication over free COVID-19 testing being done in Berkeley and Jefferson counties over the weekend. Gov. Jim Justice did not announce the testing sites until Thursday, which McGill said had community leaders “scrambling to get the word out” to residents.
Black and Hispanic Americans are over-represented in jobs that have been deemed essential, which has contributed to the disproportionate toll COVID-19 has taken on minority communities across the country, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
McGill said that, if the community was notified even just a couple days in advance that free testing would be available for all, it would have gone miles. Since black and Hispanic Americans are more likely to still be physically present at work, as opposed to virtually, requesting time off is more difficult with only a one-day notice.
“We could have had a couple more days to actually put out the word ... . We’re at the 11th hour now,” he said. “Not everybody reads their email every day. Not everyone gets on Facebook every day.”
Upson, who also is from Jefferson County, said that, after this weekend of testing, the advisory group will go back to the drawing board if turnout at a certain site is low. If outreach wasn’t adequate enough or the testing site wasn’t in the best location, a second round of testing might be needed for some communities.
The next round of free testing will take place next weekend in Cabell, Kanawha, Marion and Monongalia counties. Upson said data will drive decisions about whether additional testing is needed in any county, especially if a new coronavirus hot spot is identified.
Lyles said his most important message to state leaders is that the black community is here to help and that, together, lives can be saved.
“Work with us. Help us help our people. That’s all we’re asking for,” he said. “Don’t play politics with black lives — or any life.”