MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Around the country, communities of color continue to be among the hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says Black Americans, for example, are hospitalized at about five times the rate of white Americans. For Hispanics, the rate is four times that of whites. In many communities, local leaders are stepping in to solve a problem they say is years in the making. But as NPR's Sarah McCammon reports from Richmond, Va., some activists say it is too little too late.
SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: In Richmond this summer, crews of local firefighters and volunteers are fanning out across the city, going door to door with plastic bags filled with masks, hand sanitizer and information about staying healthy.
TRAVIS STOKES: Once we get this event started, we're going to equally distribute and break up into three separate teams, which is going to be Alpha, Bravo and Charlie. And inside...
MCCAMMON: That's Lt. Travis Stokes with the Richmond Fire Department. He's helping lead the effort, which targets areas with high rates of poverty and pre-existing health conditions and with significant numbers of residents who are racial minorities - all groups considered at heightened risk for the coronavirus. African Americans and Latinos make up the lion's share of positive cases here. Twenty-three out of 29 local deaths from the virus so far have been among those groups. On a recent visit to a public housing complex, Stokes told me that result was sadly and entirely predictable.
STOKES: It's always going to affect the lower-income communities and the minorities just for the simple matter of fact that they've been dealing with these things for many, many years. It hasn't gone away. It's still here.
MCCAMMON: The city is partnering with the Commonwealth of Virginia to distribute tens of thousands of bags of personal protective equipment in an effort to help address these racial gaps. Danny Avula, Richmond's public health director, says another goal is building trust with people who might be fearful of government officials after a long history of oppression.
DANNY AVULA: Our response to that was, OK, we've got to be on the ground more. We've got to engage in more face-to-face conversation, and we have to find credible voices and faces in those communities to be able to carry the message.
MCCAMMON: Leaders and activists around the country are grappling with similar challenges as they try to reach the people at greatest risk. Dr. Oliver Brooks is president of the National Medical Association, a group representing Black physicians. He says these efforts are a good start.
OLIVER BROOKS: It's really important because literally right now people are dying, so you need to have an acute response.
MCCAMMON: But Brooks says preventing another crisis like this one will require substantial systemic changes to improve access to food, housing, employment and health care for people of color.
BROOKS: My point is that we have to address these social determinants of health. That is what is putting us at higher risk for poor outcomes. I mean, it's the same old story, but that's what needs to be done.
MCCAMMON: Back in Richmond, Angel Dandridge-Riddick is 34 and sometimes visits her mother in the public housing complex called Creighton Court. She says she appreciates the effort to distribute protective equipment to people here, but it's only a small start.
ANGEL DANDRIDGE-RIDDICK: What they're doing is great, but to have one hand sanitizer and a few masks - if you have three other people in your home that work in different areas, they're going to need their own hand sanitizer. One bottle probably is going to last you a week.
MCCAMMON: What's more, Dandridge-Riddick - who has worked as a nurse - says it's hard for many of her neighbors to stay healthy during a pandemic when they often lack basic health care.
DANDRIDGE-RIDDICK: I'm just being honest. A lot of people out here in Creighton Court do not even know anything about health care coverage. All they know is Medicaid, and if they can't get it, they don't have anything.
MCCAMMON: The problems that have compounded this pandemic for many people of color have been around for a long time, and without major structural changes, people here say those problems will still be around when the pandemic is over. Sarah McCammon, NPR News, Richmond.
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