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UB, community partners prepare for flu and COVID using experience of spring

Michael Mroziak, WBFO

A partnership formed in the spring at the onset of the COVID pandemic is credited with reducing coronavirus deaths among Buffalo's Black community and doing so better than many other communities across the nation. They're now preparing to mobilize for flu season, and a possible second COVID wave.

The University at Buffalo's Community Health Equity Research Institute cemented a partnership with the African American Health Equity Task Force and the Buffalo Center for Health Equity several months ago. Members say there was already a knowledge of healthcare inequity but the arrival of COVID fully exposed it.

"African Americans throughout the nation are twice as likely to contract COVID-19 and three times more likely to die from the illness compared to the general population," said Dr. Tim Murphy, who heads the Institute. He added that locally, the average life expectancy of Black residents is 12 years less than their white counterparts.

Among the factors identified as contributors to higher COVID exposure risks among local African Americans include higher numbers who work essential jobs, and households where multiple generations live under the same roof.

Reverend Kinzer Pointer of Liberty Missionary Baptist Church, who co-convened the African American Health Equity Task Force, says efforts to aid at-risk residents have included food deliveries and networking to connect them to physicians.

"We were able to keep people in their homes and keep them safe then we refer them to the testing sites in their neighborhood," he said. "We work collaboratively with the physician scientists who are practicing in this community and enrolled people in health care and got them to the doctor of their choosing."

UB's institute, it was noted, was formed before the pandemic, in late 2019. That, partners say, better positioned the local community effort to address COVID once it arrived.

"When the Coronavirus hit back in the spring, the Institute and its collaborators were ready to respond. We knew that COVID-19 was going to hit the African American community with sledgehammer force, and the collaboration quickly moved to action," said Dr. Henry Louis Taylor, professor in UB's School of Architecture and Planning and associate director of the Community Health Equity Research Institute. "It launched a community information campaign to raise consciousness over the pandemic and the importance of social distancing, sanitation and wearing protective gear. We used our expertise to aid our partners at the Buffalo Health Equity Center in their quest to develop and implement a decentralized COVID-19 testing and treatment strategy for Buffalo's East Side."

But researchers involved in the partnership also warn of continuing obstacles including a lack of trust in the healthcare system. UB's Dr. Nancy Nielsen spoke of a recent survey released by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

"For example, half of African-Americans said they will not take a coronavirus vaccine when it's available," she said. "Now, they didn't ask who was telling them it was available, whether it was the scientists or politicians. On the other hand, that was not the kind of numbers that you see in the White community."

And that, in turn, reveals another obstacle being faced, according to Nielsen.

"We are taking very seriously the issues of bias of structural racism, of the implicit biases that we grow up with, we didn't even recognize in ourselves, and we are doing something about it proactively," she said. "I am very proud to stand here and tell you that the people you have heard from have really made an impact in this community, and have indeed saved lives. There's a lot more to do."

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.