On March 29, Viola York Horton, 88, of Fairmont became the first known victim in West Virginia of COVID-19, the novel coronavirus circling the globe. Mrs. Horton was an active member of her church. She sang in the choir of Morning Star Baptist, located outside of Fairmont.
It was in the comfort of a community church service where the virus very likely found her. According to reporting by Joe Severino for the Charleston Gazette-Mail, on March 15, Mrs. Horton traveled to Friendship Baptist Church in Everettville, a rural community in Monongalia County.
She was there in celebration of the Rev. Laverna Horton’s sixth anniversary at Friendship Baptist. The two women were sisters-in-law. Just 14 days later, Mrs. Horton, who was black, succumbed to the virus.
We have known the virus is particularly ruthless with seniors, many of whom do not have the physical resources to fight off the disease. What also has become clear is the virus is attacking with a vengeance in our minority communities.
According to worldpopula tionreview.com, 3.65% of West Virginia’s population is African American. Yet, the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources reported for the first time on May 3 that 7.6% of West Virginians who have contracted the virus are black. By contrast, 93.18% of our population is white, yet represents 80.8% of confirmed cases.
What we do not know is exactly why it is affecting minority populations at such a greater percentage. There are many well-regarded theories, based upon decades of study, of why black citizens are being disproportionately affected.
Blacks and other minorities make up a significant portion of the workforce that we now recognize as absolutely essential, from health care providers to restaurant employees, yet they have little access to sick leave. We know that they often find it very difficult to access quality health care due to a lack of insurance. They may live in more densely populated areas, have more people living in a household, and are over-represented in homeless shelters and prisons, where it can be impossible to practice social distancing.
They also may live in food deserts, where high-calorie, low-nutrition foods are easily accessible, but fresh vegetables, fruits, high quality fat and protein are not. Due to these adverse situations, blacks have a higher incidence of chronic medical conditions, including pulmonary and cardiovascular diseases, obesity and diabetes, all significant risk factors for COVID-19.
In the state Legislature we have worked to expand access to health care for all our citizens. We passed legislation to expand Medicaid to cover pre- and post-natal care for mothers and babies. We lowered insulin co-pays for employees with state insurance, increased access to dental care, fought opioid addiction and fully funded the developmental disabilities waiver.
As difficult as those healthcare fights were to win, Senate Bill 543 has so far been impossible to pass. This important legislation, which would create a Minority Health Advisory Team to address health disparities within minority communities, has been proposed each of the past four years in the state Senate. Unfortunately, it has never made it out of the Committee on Health and Human Resources, the first step before it can be voted upon by all senators.
On May 1, Bill Crouch, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Resources, announced the creation of a state panel to address racial disparities in public health. While we welcome this news, we believe that any special session called by the governor to address issues created by COVID-19 must include consideration of SB 543. Without a permanent task force created by legislation, it will be too easy to move on after this crisis has subsided.
We represent the most culturally diverse Senate district in West Virginia. Our constituents are rural and urban; they represent multiple races and faith traditions. As their representatives, we understand it is our responsibility to see each as a fellow human being, to recognize suffering, to understand hope for a better future and to fight with all that is in us to help.