The Toll: COVID-19 through the eyes of one Black family of survivors
Black, Indigenous and other Americans of color are getting sick, being hospitalized and dying from COVID-19 at higher rates than white Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Today on The Toll, WBFO’s Kyle Mackie takes a closer look at the virus’ disproportionate impact through the experience of one Black family on Buffalo’s East Side.
As of Sept. 23, the novel coronavirus has infected more than 14,500 people across the eight counties of Western New York, according to the New York State Department of Health. The virus has also claimed the lives of at least 791 people in our region. WBFO’s “The Toll: Western New York Stories of Loss & Survival in a Pandemic” will air weekly on Thursdays during Morning Edition in August and September, telling some of the personal stories behind those numbers.
Pastor Kenneth Simmons and his sister, Antonette Nevins, sat in a small office in the basement of Cold Spring Bible Chapel on a Tuesday evening in early September. A women’s Bible study group was meeting in the main chapel—masked and somewhat socially distanced—and a box of face masks lay open on the floor between the siblings, ready to be given out to anyone who showed up to the historically African American church on Buffalo’s Northland Avenue without one.
“I only thought white people could get it,” Simmons said, asked what he thought when he first heard about the novel coronavirus. “When we were looking at the news it was just, like, elderly Caucasians, you know, and actually African Americans was really walking around thinking that we were immune to COVID-19 until it hit.”
Nevins, who at 49 is the older sibling by two years, said she didn’t really believe that myth but knew plenty of other people who did. She also said that attitude changed quickly.
“My husband felt that way, too, and lo and behold, everybody here got COVID,” she said. “It hit home immediately after March the 20th, like the next week, it hit home, instantly.”
“People started dying from it,” Simmons added. “People who we knew personally.”
The virus also quickly reached them. Nevins said her husband, who works at a local charter school, was the first person in the family to get sick.
“He was, like, flat on his back sick. Very weak. Just no appetite, couldn't eat. But he never had a fever, you know, none of those things,” Nevins said. “I took him to the emergency room and I had to leave him there because you couldn't come in. That's when we knew it was serious.”
A friend drove the husband home later the same night after he was sent home with a pneumonia diagnosis. But Nevins said she started to suspect it was something more.
“I’ve never, in 20 years I’ve been with my husband, never saw him sick like that,” she said. “I’m like, ‘pneumonia do that?’”
“He had COVID,” Simmons chimed in confidently. But the pastor, director of youth recreation services for the City of Buffalo and chaplain for the Buffalo Police Department also admitted that he tried to fight the realization that he probably had the virus, too, when he got sick a few days after his brother-in-law—a development he blamed on a family night of playing Spades.
“We was playing cards, right?” Simmons said, launching into a perfectly deadpan story. “And so, we touching the cards, everybody, and she [Nevins] had these butter cookies on her table. So, I kept touching the cards from her husband and going to get them butter cookies, eating them. That's how I got COVID—them butter cookies and her husband. I know how I got it.”
Nevins can laugh about the Spades story now that both her brother and husband have recovered from the virus, which later antibody tests confirmed they had survived. But she also worries that she might have been the one to infect both men because her own antibody test in May showed that she has the antibodies, too, even though she never got sick.
“My boss always says, ‘You might have given everybody COVID.’ I was like, ‘I might have!’” she said, while Simmons agreed. “But you know, we’ll never know.”
Nevins works as an administrative assistant at the nonprofit Buffalo Prenatal-Perinatal Network, which provides health care services in high-risk, low-income neighborhoods in Buffalo, Lackawanna and Cheektowaga. The network’s target population is African American and Hispanic women, who demonstrate the highest rates of low birth rate infants and infant mortality. So, Nevins has thought a lot about the disparities that contributed to the coronavirus pandemic’s disproportionate impact on people of color.
“What white people may fail to realize is how Black people get medical treatment versus white people getting medical treatment. And that's why we have protests—it's just the treatment of Black people versus the treatment of white people,” Nevins said. “Doctors [are] not taking Black people serious enough. And if they had taken my brother serious enough or my husband, when he went to the emergency room, they should have given them a COVID test, period.”
While both men got sick in March, before COVID-19 testing was widely available in Western New York, Simmons echoed a concern raised by many African American advocates that not enough early testing sites were located on Buffalo’s East Side, where about 85% of the city’s Black residents live, according to the Partnership for Public Good. More testing sites were added by late April, but Simmons said there needs to be systemic change in the health care industry, not just a knee jerk reaction to COVID-19.
“We have community health centers, right? A lot of African Americans do not have private doctors,” Simmons said. “On your prescription, you’ll have ‘Dr. [so-and-so]’ but every time you go, it’s a different doctor. And so now they have to look at your charts, they have to ask you the same questions because they really, really don’t know you. In the same case with my brother-in-law, had we had doctors that, you know, took our community seriously, maybe we wouldn’t have a lot of people affected by COVID to the extent that it is now.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirms that “many people from racial and ethnic minority groups [are] at increased risk of getting sick and dying from COVID-19” because of “long-standing systemic health and social inequities.” Black Americans are 4.7 times more likely to be hospitalized from COVID-19 than white Americans and 2.1 times more likely to die, according to CDC data last updated in August. And even though people of color face these disparities because of myriad social, health and economic factors, Simmons and Nevins said there’s still a stigma associated with contracting the virus in Buffalo’s African American community.
Nevins said her husband “didn’t want to hear the word ‘COVID’” when he was sick. “He didn’t want to admit that he might have it because it was a stigma. It was like, ‘Oh, you're gonna die,’” she said. “It was an awful experience.”
Fortunately, Simmons and Nevins said they were one of just a few families in their church community that were impacted by the virus. However, they’re still grappling with other losses as they try to move forward.
“I personally know people our age that died. They have children that’s our children’s’ age,” Nevins said. “I plan to be 80, 100 years old before I die, you know? So, that’s a big impact.”
“We just lost one of our DJ friends, Shay, you know, died from COVID. Football coaches— COVID. [And other] people we know,” Simmons agreed. “This probably was the worst year that anybody that’s in our age group have experienced.”