First Of Its Kind Virtual Town Hall Addresses COVID-19 Racial Disparities

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to be one of the most devastating public health crises in modern history. As the virus began to spread in the United States, California declared a state of emergency on March 4, 2020. During that time, areas with the largest number of cases in Los Angeles County were historically wealthier communities, both suburban and urban.

Recognizing the lack of COVID-19 testing sites in unincorporated communities of South Los Angeles, Second District Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas mobilized resources and a partnership to provide testing and supplemental patient follow-up for the Watts/Willowbrook community.

“It has long been my mission to bring medical resources to chronically underserved communities,” said L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. “That’s why this partnership between Charles R. Drew University, the Martin Luther King Jr. Outpatient Center, the L.A. County Department of Health Services and the L.A. County Fire Department has been so essential. At a time when all of the data show communities of color are disproportionately affected by the pandemic, we came together to bring testing to an area where it is critically needed.”

The Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science (CDU), Martin Luther King Jr. Outpatient Center (MLK OPC), and Los Angeles County Fire Department (LAC FD) partnered to operate a COVID-19 viral infection detection testing site located on the CDU campus (CDU/MLK OPC/LAC FD Testing Site). The site has tested a large number of people from racial and ethnic minority groups that are at higher risk for poor outcomes and complications from COVID-19.

A recently released report from Charles R. Drew University COVID-19 testing site demonstrates that changes in outreach and test procedures can result in a dramatic increase in the number of individuals tested in under-resourced communities. The report, with detailed demographic data, findings and recommendations, is available here.

“Our site demonstrates the impact that locally tailored approaches to engage high-risk populations, often from racial and ethnic minority groups and under-resourced communities, can have on access and use of testing and health education to combat the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Dr. Roberto Vargas, Assistant Dean, Health Policy, CDU College of Medicine, Director of the Health Policy Pillar, CDU Urban Health Institute and lead researcher for the report. “This includes allowing on-site registration and walk-through testing, marketing at local venues, and the use of culturally and linguistically familiar media outlets. These approaches are essential, as we have identified high rates of infection within the Latinx community and have successfully engaged African Americans who are among those at highest risk for poor outcomes associated with the disease. Moreover, our findings of over 30% of those positive for infection not having a medical home highlights the need for additional social needs assessments and support.”

“The earlier reports, in March and April, seemed to show that COVID-19 was more prevalent in more affluent areas of the county, but we knew South Los Angeles was deeply affected,” said CDU President and CEO Dr. David M. Carlisle. “It was a matter of greater access to testing in those areas, and far less access to convenient testing here. With some minor enhancements to the testing process, among them conducting direct community outreach by CDU and other student volunteers and staying open on weekends and holidays, our site has demonstrated that we can provide the same critically important access to tests to under-resourced communities. We are now one of the highest-volume testing sites in the county, consistently testing over 700 people per day.”

To discuss the findings of the report and answer questions from the surrounding communities, Supervisor Ridley-Thomas convened a first-of-its-kind virtual town hall reaching over 20,000 people and generating over 200 comments from concerned residents. The town hall featured answers from Charles R. Drew University President Dr. David Carlisle, LA County Dept of Health Services Language Access and Inclusion Director Dr. Erika Uribe, Charles R. Drew University Lead Researcher Dr. Roberto Vargas,  and Charles Drew University School of Medicine Testing Site Director Dr. Sheila Young.

“As this pandemic continues, it is crucial that demographic data on how COVID-19 is affecting people by race and by gender and by age and that it not only be collected but used to better target and inform our community-wide efforts,” the Supervisor said.

Watch the full town hall here: