‘African American communities are dying more than others’: VCU cancer director weighs in on COVID-19

Coronavirus

RICHMOND (WRIC) – As the coronavirus pandemic continues, the data still shows that the virus is affecting black and brown communities with higher infection and mortality rates.

A prominent VCU doctor is weighing in on the issue and Virginia’s numbers.

Dr. Robert Winn calls himself the product of an underserved community.

“You’re looking at the product of a head start kid,” said Winn. “You’re looking at the product of a 15-year-old mom.”

Overcoming adversity, Winn vowed to be on the front lines and make a difference using his life experiences, science and research to help people.

He is now the Director of the VCU Massey Cancer Center, a pulmonologist and a health disparity researcher.

“African American communities are dying more than others,” said Winn. “To put it bluntly, simply because we have not done anything since the 1950s to make a difference. These disparities existed and all this virus did is exacerbate what we already know.”

Winn said disparities stem from societal constructs which include things like poor education, food insecurities, access to proper health care and quality jobs.

He says these issues have been plaguing black communities for centuries, and it becomes abundantly clear during times of crisis.

“The only difference between the Watts Riots and Hurricane Katrina is those have been local events,” Winn told 8News. “This time no one in the United States or over the world can deny or haven’t been affected by COVID.”

Winn added that for the first time in decades, minority issues are affecting the world because everyone has the potential to get sick.

“This pandemic has not only shined a light on health disparities, but has shined a light that if we don’t address the disparities even the richest of us will get sick,” said Winn. “This is because we are dependent on those people who do our garden, service our food, drive our buses and those people who man the grocery stores.”

Earlier this month Virginia Governor Ralph Northam called for more complete COVID-19 data in the commonwealth. The numbers are starting to come in, giving officials a better look at where Virginia stands. However, there are still gaps in reporting.

As of Wednesday, in the Richmond, Henrico and Crater Health Districts, African Americans have the highest percentage of reported cases.

In the Chesterfield Health District, the percentage of reported black and white cases are evenly tied, but it’s important to note that a little less than half of the district’s cases have not been reported.

COVID-19 cases by race and death for the Henrico Health District as of Wednesday, Apr. 29, 2020. (Information provided by VDH.Virginia.Gov)
COVID-19 cases by race and death for the Henrico Health District as of Wednesday, Apr. 29, 2020. (Information provided by VDH.Virginia.Gov)
COVID-19 cases by race and death for the Crater Health District as of Wednesday, Apr. 29, 2020. (Information provided by VDH.Virginia.Gov)
COVID-19 cases by race and death for the Crater Health District as of Wednesday, Apr. 29, 2020. (Information provided by VDH.Virginia.Gov)
COVID-19 cases by race and death for the Richmond Health District as of Wednesday, Apr. 29, 2020. (Information provided by VDH.Virginia.Gov)
COVID-19 cases by race and death for the Richmond Health District as of Wednesday, Apr. 29, 2020. (Information provided by VDH.Virginia.Gov)
COVID-19 cases by race and death for the Chesterfield Health District as of Wednesday, Apr. 29, 2020. (Information provided by VDH.Virginia.Gov)
COVID-19 cases by race and death for the Chesterfield Health District as of Wednesday, Apr. 29, 2020. (Information provided by VDH.Virginia.Gov)

Winn says the way to close the racial gap in the fight against COVID-19 is more data analysis, testing, zip code tracking and contact tracing.

However, a change in health disparities is more complex, says Winn. He says legislation, federal, state, and local programs, and more diversity on the front lines will be a place to start.

Dr. Winn said health disparities, including race and class, have been studied for years, but the problem is action hasn’t been taken and he’s hoping the world will learn vital lessons from COVID-19.

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