Say His Name: Alvin Simmons Died One Year Ago; We Still Don't Have Racial Data on Local COVID Cases

by DARIEN LAMEN


ROCHESTER NY--It's been one year to the day since Monroe County recorded its first COVID-19-related death.


Alvin Simmons, a 54-year-old African American veteran who worked maintenance at Rochester General Hospital and reportedly loved karaoke, passed away on March 17, 2020, less than a week after Monroe County declared a state of emergency due to the pandemic.


In the year since then, the County has reported 1,183 COVID-related deaths.


We know that African Americans are overrepresented in the number of COVID fatalities nationwide. But we still don't have a full picture of the racial disparities in COVID rates in Monroe County.


That's because, according to a spokesperson for Monroe County Department of Public Health, they're neither publishing nor compiling that data.


In a community where leaders and elected officials frequently tout their blue-ribbon equity commissions and racial diversity initiatives, the lack of publicly-available racial demographic data on COVID-19 rates seems like a significant oversight.


We know that African Americans like Alvin Simmons are in triple jeopardy when it comes to COVID, due in no small part to systemic and structural racism--they are more likely to work in frontline jobs where the risk of exposure to COVID-19 is higher than for those who can work from home; they are more likely to suffer from comorbidities as a result of environmental racism, intergenerational trauma, and food apartheid that make contracting COVID potentially more debilitating and more deadly; and they are more likely to receive questionable medical care due to implicit bias among many medical professionals.


Since the beginning of the priority vaccine rollout in New York State, stark disparities in vaccination rates among different zip codes in Monroe County suggest that African Americans are also under-protected by the COVID vaccine.


The last date on which Monroe County Department of Public Health published composite racial demographic data to their COVID archive was May 22, 2020. According to that report, African Americans (who make up 15% of Monroe County's population) accounted for 19% of COVID fatalities, a rate of 33 per 100,000, compared with a rate of 22 per 100,000 among white residents and 18 per 100,000 among Hispanic residents when adjusted for age.


It's unclear from that report where the County sourced the data from, or why the County stopped publishing it just two months into the pandemic. The organization of the County's COVID dashboard suggests that a decision was made to substitute zip code information for racial demographic information. One public health expert with whom we spoke said this may be due to the ease of capturing information about a patient's home address compared with the challenge of determining a patient's racial or ethnic identification. Yet this approach to reporting COVID data is inconsistent with that of New York State's Department of Health and makes it difficult to compare Monroe County's rates to other cities and regions.


Meanwhile, the information available from the NYS Department of Health's COVID Tracker for Monroe County appears to be out of date. As of Wednesday, the website provided a racial demographic breakdown for a total of 592 COVID deaths in Monroe County. The current total of fatalities reported by Monroe County is 1,183. It's unclear what accounts for that discrepancy.


Last year, dozens of prominent area organizations signed on to a declaration from the Rochester Black Agenda Group declaring racism a public health crisis. The disparate impact of COVID-19 on Monroe County's African American residents is undoubtedly part of that crisis.


On the one year anniversary of Alvin Simmons' passing, we have a collective responsibility to reckon with that reality. That should include, among other things, calls for a full and public accounting of racial demographic data in Monroe County's COVID-19 rates.


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DARIEN LAMEN is news director/producer for Reclaiming the Narrative. He can be reached at wxirnews@gmail.com.