Minority communities in Nassau hit hardest by COVID-19

Minority communities in Nassau hit hardest by COVID-19
The social conditions of minority communities in Nassau County make residents more vulnerable to coronavirus, experts including Martine Hackett (left) and Susan Gottehrer (right) say. (Photos courtesy of Martine Hackett and Susan Gottehrer)

The racial segregation of Nassau County communities is reflected in coronavirus statistics, experts say.

“We’re talking about systems of oppression that have been in place forever, and they’re huge, they’re at every single crossroads, in every sphere of society,” Susan Gottehrer, director of the Nassau County Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, told Blank Slate Media. “Barriers are set up everywhere. The COVID response is mirroring those barriers, and we need to call attention to them, and we need to teach people what they are, and we need to change them.”

County Executive Laura Curran has said that Hempstead and Freeport are the hardest hit communities. Curran’s office reported last Friday that it does not yet have data on the ethnicities of those who have been tested.

“If you look at the number of positive cases, for example, even though the data are not presented by race or ethnicity, we know that the biggest numbers of positive cases are in Hempstead, Freeport, and Elmont, which because of the racial residential segregation in Nassau County are majority minority communities,” said Martine Hackett, associate professor in the master of Public Health and Community Health programs at Hofstra University.

In the Village of Hempstead, which had 1,734 positive cases as of Tuesday (31 cases per 1,000 residents), 95 percent of the population is either black or Hispanic, according to 2018 census data. Bordering villages have had lower numbers of positive cases: in Garden City, for example, where 92 percent of residents are white, there are currently 199 cases, or eight cases per 1,000 residents.

“The main factor that contributes to why minority communities are disproportionately affected is the history of the treatment of minorities in Nassau County,” said Hackett. “Nassau County was created as a racially residentially segregated area.”

When Levittown was built over 70 years ago, for example, only caucasians could purchase a home there, Hackett explained.

“There are pretty clear dots that you can connect between racial residential segregation and the housing that is associated with that, jobs, education, and how those social factors influence the health outcomes of the people who live within those communities,” she said. 

The majority of essential workers in Nassau County are people of color, Hackett noted.

“The first piece would be to acknowledge this in a way that is meaningful on the same level that we acknowledge nurses and physicians that are working within the hospital system. The second way would be. . .really to just talk to them. Do they have what they need? How are they able to get to their jobs? Are they able to protect themselves? What else do they need?”

The ACLU’s Gottehrer  said, “We need to make sure that we are valuing the work of people in these jobs. We need to make sure they have access to paid sick leave so that they don’t choose to go to work out of financial necessity.”

Hackett emphasized it was important to ask essential workers what they need in order to protect themselves from the virus.

Gottehrer explained that beyond employment, social factors that affect health include housing and transportation. In lower-income communities that have significant minority populations, living spaces are often smaller and closer together, which makes social distancing difficult. In many cases, residents do not own cars, and therefore have to ride public transportation and put themselves at greater risk of infection.

Hackett also stressed that social conditions shape the health conditions that disproportionately affect black people, such as hypertension, diabetes, obesity and asthma.

“The evidence is pretty clear that the presence of those diseases are influenced by what surrounds you,” Hackett said. “There’s a phrase, ‘Your zip code matters more than your genetic code.’ There’s a lot of research that recognizes the influence that zip code has on health outcomes more than just individual behaviors.”

Both Hackett and Gottehrer said the first step to slow the spread in minority communities is to make the public aware of the inequities of the virus’ spread and fatality rate.

“[I]f we don’t know that this is an issue, then we won’t be able to address it,” said Hackett. “I think that even people within these communities certainly might assume that this is the case, but having those data is paramount to be able to even figure out what the next steps are.”

The information should be available on county websites so that the public can easily access it, Hackett said.

“The more information everybody has, the better off we’re all going to be. There needs to be transparency around all of the statistics,” said Gottehrer. “The question is always: Is it that they have the information and they’re not sharing it, or is it that they’re not collecting it? If you’re not collecting the information, then you’re not going to know. And if you’re not collecting the information then you shouldn’t be governing.”

Nassau County officials announced last week that they were ramping up testing in hard-hit minority communities. Curran said the coronavirus pandemic has exposed pre-existing disparities.

County-funded outdoor testing sites opened in Hempstead and Freeport last Wednesday. A third will open this week in Elmont.

“My team and I have been focused on scaling up viral testing, that’s the testing to say whether or not if you have the virus, in the hardest-hit areas,” Curran said at a press briefing last Friday.

Hackett commented that although the new testing sites will benefit these communities, Nassau County was slow to provide walk-in testing.

Prior to last Wednesday, “the problem was people had to actually go inside the clinic, which puts them more at risk, and then they had to actually become patients,” said Gottehrer. “And people who are distrustful of the government aren’t going to do that.”

Hackett echoed this sentiment.

“I think there’s a lot of distrust from the black community specifically with county systems overall in Nassau County,” she said. “And I think that just throwing a tent up there. . .isn’t sufficient to have people trust, because that trust has been breached in the past.”

Gottehrer added that the first testing site that opened in Nassau County located at Jones Beach was difficult to reach for residents of the most severely affected areas that do not have cars.

“I think it’s important to have these testing sites closer to where people live,” Curran acknowledged. “Not everyone can get to Jones Beach or has healthcare.”

Making testing more widely available will only benefit the more disadvantaged communities if it is accessible, both Gottehrer and Hackett said.

“We need to make sure people have better access [to health care]—during COVID, and before and after COVID,” said Gottehrer.

“I also hear a lot of experts on TV saying things like, ‘You have to go see your doctor,’” Gottehrer said. “There are assumptions. What if I don’t have a doctor? People of privilege don’t take these things into account when they say things.”

There also needs to be more proactive testing in order to stop the spread, Hackett added.

It is necessary to make information on testing accessible in a host of different languages as well, Gottehrer said.

Hackett and Gottehrer stressed that it is crucial for officials to bring residents of affected communities into the conversation.

Elected officials must be in close contact with advocates on the ground, Gottehrer said. By opening this line of communication, the county will be able to react more quickly when problems emerge within communities.

“As the county executive is looking to be able to plan for the reopening of Nassau County, the stakeholders within these communities need to be brought into that planning process,”  Hackett said.

She pointed out that it is becoming increasingly clear that the spread of coronavirus within a particular community inevitably impacts surrounding communities as well.

“This is not something you can draw lines around,” Hackett said. “You can’t draw lines around Hempstead or Freeport and not have it affect Garden City, for example, or other adjacent communities. In order for Nassau County as a whole to be able to move forward toward reopening, we need to work together, and in this case specifically additional resources need to be placed within the communities that are the most highly impacted.”

Gottehrer said it is crucial not only to aid affected communities, but to make positions of power accessible to residents of those communities.

“As long as we continue to have leaders who are not of affected communities, when you have leaders who are coming from white privileged backgrounds, they’re less likely to think of these things,” she said. “Part of the solution to all this structurally is to empower people who are from affected communities to become political leaders, and for them to have the opportunity to do that. There’s a lot of barriers that have to be removed. It’s the very structures of society that are set up on Long Island that keep neighborhoods segregated and underserved that are now being replicated in the coronavirus response. And that’s part of what’s creating all of this.”

Hackett said Nassau County needs to take this opportunity to build trust within communities of color, which is not something that the county has a history of.

“I look forward to seeing what Nassau County proposes,” she said. “I hope [Curran] is able to bring forward the needs that are specific to communities of color in Nassau County, because. . .if there’s one thing we all recognize, it’s that we’re connected, and so we ignore each other at our own peril.”

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