By Courtney Napier for Raleigh Convergence
It should have been a time for celebrations for Christopher Terrell. His oldest daughter graduated from Winston Salem State University in spring semester 2020, his son from Wakefield High School in June, and his youngest daughter is graduating from the same high school in December — six months early.
“It’s been really difficult because they can’t have the events they deserve. We were planning to go to Jamaica to celebrate. Now we’re quarantined.”
But Terrell is grateful that everyone under his roof has their health, which is more than he can say for the rest of his family.
Six of Terrell’s extended family members who live in Southeast Raleigh have contracted COVID-19, with one uncle who recently lost his battle with the virus.
“I am so close to my family,” Terrell said several times during our interview, “This has been a very hard time for all of us.”
New challenge for long-standing health inequities
There are 2,159 cases of COVID-19 in Southeast Raleigh’s 27610 ZIP code and 36 deaths as of Tuesday.
These are the highest number of cases in Raleigh, more than double any other ZIP code in Wake County for more than 15 weeks, according to Raleigh Convergence’s weekly data analysis.
COVID-19 is a new health challenge that is shedding light on old challenges of inequity in 27610. This Southeast Raleigh ZIP code is one of the most diverse in the city.
With a population of 78,475, 61% of people in 27610 are Black and 18% are Latinx, according to Census Reporter.
Black and Latinx people make up 20% and 10% of Wake County’s overall population.
Wake County’s residents of color are disproportionately feeling the impact of COVID-19, with Black residents representing 26% of confirmed cases and 37% of deaths, according to the state’s data.
Even before the pandemic, Southeast Raleigh residents had the lowest life expectancy in Raleigh, according to a study conducted by Virginia Commonwealth University in November of 2019.
The average life expectancy in Wake County is 80 years old, the study found, but Southeast Raleigh residents in 27610 live on average to only 76 years, with neighboring 27601 at 75 years.
This had to do with many factors, including health insurance and provider deficiencies, the lack of access to healthy food options, and the high level of housing instability and homelessness.
From homelessness, to underemployment and benefits gaps, to historic issues of distrust, Wake County officials are working to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus by addressing these enduring systemic injustices with creativity, urgency and a team effort.
27610 known early to be hit hard by COVID-19
“When healthcare professionals learned of coronavirus and saw its trajectory, we knew right away that the 27610 area would be one of the hardest hit communities in Wake County,” said Sonya Reid, program manager for the Public Health Division at Wake County Human Services.
Wake County Human Services (WCHS) staff have been working diligently to better understand COVID-19, how it is impacting the county’s residents, and how to slow the spread.
At the center of the effort to fight COVID-19 is Wake County’s Emergency Operations Center. What has historically been the headquarters for weather-related emergency response — which only lasts for 3-4 weeks — both WCHS employees and temporary workers have been working overtime to meet the needs of residents who are being impacted by coronavirus.
This is also where Wake County’s contact tracing effort is taking place.
Contact tracers interview people with COVID-19 to better understand how and where the coronavirus is spreading.
Tracers ask “where they have gone and who they have been in contact with,” Sonya explained.
The data has revealed that residents are having a hard time understanding the virus and how they play a role in the spread.
UPDATED DAILY: What to know about COVID-19 in Wake County
Misinformation and mistrust causes confusion in Black communities
Christopher Kippes is the Division Director of Public Health at WCHS and is a co-manager of the Emergency Operations Center (EOC).
“The first issue we are seeing is that many people don’t understand the part they play in slowing the spread of COVID-19 and staying healthy,” Kippes said in the interview.
“Coronavirus does not behave like the pandemics people are used to because the illness does not impact everyone that contracts it. It’s not like Ebola where nearly everyone who catches it gets violently ill. Only a small number of people who catch COVID-19 get seriously ill or die, and one can also be asymptomatic and spread the disease to others. So this has been difficult to communicate to the community.”
Terrell is also seeing confusion among his family and friends in Southeast Raleigh.
“Black people don’t trust the government and mainstream media to tell them the truth about what’s going on, because we have been lied to for so long by them,” Terrell said.
As soon as the first case of this novel coronavirus was discovered in the United States, knowing who and what to believe about COVID-19 proved difficult.
In a PEW study conducted in April, Americans were asked if they believed coronavirus was created in a lab, a debunked conspiracy theory.
Forty-four percent of Black Americans weren’t sure, compared to just 22% of white people. Historically, the only dependable sources of information for the Black family were self-made, from Black-owned newspapers and radio stations, to the parking lot after church.
White-led media has a history of upholding institutions that harmed Black people and government agencies have told dangerous lies, which resulted in tragedies like the Tuskegee Experiment or the recently uncovered forced sterilization of thousands by the North Carolina Eugenics Board in the late 1950s and ‘60s.
One of the first misconceptions was that only elderly people could catch and become sick from coronavirus. There was also the direction of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that people should not wear medical grade masks, then the CDC advised people to to wear cloth face masks.
Misinformation and confusion impacted how public health professionals responded to the pandemic, and Reid admits this cost her colleagues precious time early in the fight to slow the spread.
What perhaps was the most damaging piece of misinformation was a conspiracy theory that Black people’s melanin protected them from COVID-19 that first surfaced on February 14th and quickly spread on social media. Though it was ultimately debunked, the veracity of the narrative exposed the lack of data being collected and released on the state and federal level regarding COVID-19’s impact on communities of color.
By April, medical professionals, journalists and scholars demanded that states begin to release this pertinent information. Two weeks later, the CDC confirmed that while Black people make up 13% of the US population, they accounted for 30% of positive COVID-19 cases.
“Black people are dying at 2.4 times the rate of white people from COVID-19,” according to the COVID Tracking Project of the Antiracism Center at American University.
SUPPORT LOCAL JOURNALISM LIKE THIS: Our journalism is free to read, with voluntary contributions from readers like you.
Housing and types of employment put some at risk
Besides instructing people on the nature of COVID-19 and partnering with first responders and other local organizations to provide residents in 27610 with masks and hand sanitizer, the Wake County EOC has also been making a concerted effort to reach Raleigh’s homeless population.
Reid explained, “The county recognized that there was a vulnerable group — those who are homeless or without stable housing — that very likely could be infected with coronavirus. By being so transient, one would most likely run the risk of infecting others even when they didn’t know that they were carrying.”
On May 4, the Wake County Board of Commissioners unanimously voted to launch House Wake!. According to the press release, the program is, “A strategic plan to help minimize the effects of COVID-19 on county residents who are currently homeless or on the brink of homelessness.”
The nine-month plan plan is focused in the near-term on two main areas: stabilizing the housing situations of as many people teetering on the edge of homelessness as possible and housing individuals and families who are currently unsheltered and at a greater risk of contracting COVID-19.
Applications for assistance will open at the end of August. [read more]
In addition to housing, the Emergency Operations Center discovered that the other barrier to slowing the spread of coronavirus is directly linked to one’s employment.
“Some people work in industries where they don’t have the benefit of paid time off or sick leave,” Kippes said.
According to analyzing contact tracing data, the EOC has observed that many people who work in industries like landscaping, construction and hospitality are forced to decide between their health and making ends meet.
“They’re left with making difficult decisions to isolate or quarantine themselves when they know they’re not being able to earn income to provide for themselves. People who work in the landscaping, building or service industry typically do not have a robust benefits package. We also know that sometimes certain populations gravitate towards those types of industries.
“So, for example, with this disease, you know that there has been a disproportionate impact on the Latinx community. Well, we also know that there is a large proportion of Latinx individuals that work for the building industry. So reaching out to (non-profit) agencies that work with Latinx residents to help educate them on ways to protect themselves on the job, and then share the message. We are also reaching out to business entities to try to see if there’s something that they can do to help support the needs that individuals would have in the event that they are asked to isolate.”
When asked what the results of their conversations with employers and workers about this subject, Kippes replied, “These tactics are newer to our response efforts, so the story is still to be determined.”
What now? Turn inequities to action
Reid said, “County Manager Ellis coined the phrase ‘Team Wake’ early on in the pandemic. And he constantly refers to us (all Wake County staff) as ‘Team Wake’ and reminds us that there’s no role too insignificant that contributes to the overall goal of taking care of this county and working together.”
While public health workers and other government agencies are working hard to contain the spread of this pandemic, many stress that they cannot do it without the participation of the residents of Wake County.
Reid concluded: “If people can just be conscious enough to know that this isn’t just about them, but about their neighbor,” then we can truly begin to slow the spread.
Beyond wearing a mask and practicing good hygiene, byproducts of institutional and economic racism — weakened workers rights, housing insecurity, and lack of healthcare access — impact many of Wake County’s Black and Brown residents’ ability to be seen by a medical professional when experiencing symptoms and self-isolate.
Addressing these issues with policy changes, activism, and greater investment in Southeast Raleigh will not only help slow the spread of COVID-19, but would also begin to repair inequitable systems that caused marginalized groups to be impacted more harshly by the pandemic.
Courtney Napier is a freelance writer journalist from Raleigh, NC. She has written for Scalawag Magazine, WALTER Magazine, and is a regular contributor to INDY Week newspaper’s “Voices” column. Courtney writes to unearth and uplift the stories of the Black community. She is inspired daily by the love of her spouse and two children.
This story was made possible by reader contributions to the Raleigh Convergence COVID-19 Local News Fund, administered by the Local Media Association. Support more reporting from Raleigh Convergence, made free for all to read, when you contribute to Raleigh Convergence’s general operating fund. Contribute to a matching campaign now, thanks to a private donor!