Data breaking down COVID-19 cases for West Virginia’s black population has still not been released more than a week after it was announced. State health officials said they hoped it would be up Monday.
There was no mention of the data or the minority health advisory group during Gov. Jim Justice’s press briefing Thursday afternoon.
The data — which officials said will break down the location of individuals who tested positive for COVID-19, the total number of cases and the number of deaths in West Virginia’s black communities — is going to be added to the state’s coronavirus dashboard. One week ago, Department of Health and Human Resources Secretary Bill Crouch said he hoped the data could be up at the beginning of this week.
On Tuesday, when asked by a reporter what the status of the data was, Crouch said they had numbers already gathered, but hadn’t released them yet.
“[Wednesday], Secretary Crouch,” Justice said Tuesday, “come with real numbers, and between my general counsel and Secretary Crouch, we’ll have a better report for you tomorrow.”
On Wednesday, Crouch said Dr. Cathy Slemp, commissioner for the Bureau for Public Health, and her staff had been gathering and analyzing data on the the state’s black population for weeks. Crouch named Berkeley, Jefferson, Marion, Monongalia and Raleigh counties as areas where targeted testing for black communities will soon be initiated.
As of 5 p.m. Thursday, the data had still not been posted to DHHR’s coronavirus dashboard. The office did not respond to an email following the governor’s briefing asking when the data is expected to be released.
Late Wednesday night, West Virginia NAACP President Owens Brown filed a Freedom of Information Act request to the DHHR, according to a news release. Brown requested the state health office release data showing the total number of black West Virginians tested for the virus, not just those who tested positive.
He also requested the number of employees and inmates at each correctional facility in the state who have been tested for COVID-19, and the number of inmates who have tested positive, according to the release.
Finally, Brown requested the number, names and locations of public housing units in West Virginia where people have been tested for the virus, and how many of those have tested positive.
In a phone interview Thursday, Brown said without knowing the total number of how many black West Virginians have been tested, it’s hard to know how hard the community has been hit by the virus.
“We feel as though that there has not been enough testing overall, especially in African American communities, to get a valid count,” he said.
Black communities in West Virginia were deemed a vulnerable population by state health officials on April 30. Brown said targeted testing of these communities benefit the entire population.
“There’s a lot of interaction between the races in West Virginia, and it’s to everybody’s benefit to make sure that the African American community is tested,” he said. “We cannot have inadequate testing in the African American community without it impacting the rest of the overall community.”
Black West Virginians are disproportionately represented in public housing and correctional facilities, where density issues are unavoidable, Brown said. Public housing units are rife with individuals with underlying health conditions, and it’s important to prioritize testing for them.
Seventy-three percent of inmates in one Ohio prison tested positive for the virus in late April, according to NPR. Brown said the public should know how much testing has been done in West Virginia’s facilities to show if COVID-19 is present in any of them.
“When you consider what’s happening across the nation in the correctional institutions, and that density level there is far greater than any other place; where if one person has coronavirus in a correctional facility, it might affect the whole cell block,” he said.
Rick Martin, president of the Charleston branch of the NAACP, said by phone that while Justice is allowing businesses to reopen, hardly any data has been presented to show the virus’ affect on the state’s low-income neighborhoods.
“No one is saying much about poor communities; whether they’re African American or Caucasian, poverty does not discriminate,” Martin said. “The economy is being opened up; have our people been tested? And to the extent they have, and have tested negative, then that at least gives us some semblance of comfort.”