The COVID-19 pandemic is having a devastating effect on the world. The largest number of confirmed cases are in the United States. At the time of writing this article, the U.S have reached a grim milestone of 10 million confirmed cases and over 225, 000 deaths. The impact is especially felt in overcrowded hospitals, and in underserved communities. The work of Dr. Kim F. Rhoads, Associate Professor of Epidemiology & Biostatistics at UCSF, which targets eliminating inequities that lead to cancer disparities in the African American community, was no exception. Now as Director of Community Outreach and Engagement (COE), Rhoads immediately pivoted and began to focus on the overwhelming impact of the pandemic on the same population. Her goals became clear, inform, educate, provide testing and make resources available for the African American community. However, Rhoads was well aware of the challenge ahead due to the existence of historical distrust of many in the Black community, with respect to testing and subsequent treatment. This distrust is understandable as one only needs to recall the Tuskegee experiment or the story of Henrietta Lacks.
With a sense of urgency uniquely brought about by a global pandemic, Rhoads began to build a team, and recruit community influencers and trusted messengers of UCSF’s COE efforts. One of the early leaders she brought on board to begin this herculean effort was Kevin Epps, a renowned indie filmmaker, and community activist. Epps’ work is primarily focused on the culture, sociology, psychology and social anthropology of urban African American communities. As a fixture in many San Francisco Bay Area communities, Epps is a key fit. His years of filmmaking and community organizing, along with his natural understanding of how to connect, create messaging, and communicate with Black and Brown communities proved to be invaluable to COE. He immediately began to bring in others with similar backgrounds as his own, and as a result of working with Rhodes, Epps further harnessed his creative and promotional skills and started Covid Advisor LLC, a marketing agency with a focus to sustain and increase the crucial work of community-wide outreach.
Umoja in Health, or United in Health, led by Rhoads, continues to push ahead with the work that needs to be done in predominantly Black communities. Programming began in the neighborhoods of Bayview Hunters Point, Visitacion Valley, East and West Oakland, where racial disparities are glaring. Outreach in these areas is essential toward eradicating COVID-19 in San Francisco where Black and Brown communities make up more than 50 percent of COVID-19 cases. Black individuals are also more likely to die than others who test positive. This increase in mortality is due in part to underlying health issues such as diabetes, hypertension and other comorbidities. With the goal of bringing testing to the community, led by the community, Umoja employs the old school guerilla tactics of street promotions, combined with the new and necessary realities of social distancing and mask wearing. Passing out flyers, putting up posters, and having real conversations with community members is a big part of the work, and this strategy is proving itself to be effective, with a 60 percent turnout of black testers, compared to 10% black turnout at other Covid testing sites.
Epps explains, “When there’s a positive test, Umoja provides wrap-around services. While individuals isolate, we pay for a hotel to quarantine for 14 days, we set up daily food delivery, counseling and there’s a $1,300 stipend available to cover bills and income loss, so people don’t fall behind.”
According to Epps, “We spend a lot of time out in the community, because of the historical medical harm that has been done to the Black community. Understandably, there is a high level of distrust.” Achieving trust means being out amongst the people, having eye to eye contact and candid conversations. “We patiently and persistently inform and educate about COVID. We aren’t just pulling up, wearing white coats, testing people and pulling out, never to be heard from again. We are engaging, following up, making calls and being present, so the community can see us. We are accessible to answer any questions or point people in the right direction because there is simply a lot of misinformation out there.”
Epps believes that misinformation adds on to distrust from the past. Specifically, “the Tuskegee experiment is something that was real, and I hear about it often when testing is mentioned or talked about, or when there is talk of a possible vaccine. A lot of Black people don’t plan to take a vaccine.
The Tuskegee experiment centered on infecting Black men with syphilis under the false assumption of receiving a vaccine. There is also the story of Henrietta Lacks. Researchers stole and used her cells without her knowledge or consent, never acknowledging her humanity or rights along the way. For many, the history of Blacks being used as guinea pigs, exploited and having their lives and safety jeopardized in the name of scientific progress, is real. It is undeniable that the government decided to experiment on members of the African American community. As a result, our community just doesn’t trust anything that comes from the U.S. Government or medical institutions.
With all of this in mind, the work and leadership of Dr. Kim Rhoads, an African American physician, continues to make positive inroads within the African American community during this federally mismanaged pandemic. Her presence makes a difference to many of these individuals who see Rhoads, someone who looks like them, in this caring leadership role. By also recruiting trusted messengers and influencers like Kevin Epps, the Umoja in Health COVID-19 initiative is making a difference and helping to save lives.