In early June of 2020, Community Foundation of Greater Flint approved funding for a Grassroots Public Health Navigator program through the Urgent Relief Fund. Michigan United was granted the funding to run the program and by the end of July, the navigators were up and running. The navigators are grassroots individuals involved and trusted in their communities. The task of the navigators is to provide the best and most updated information on COVID-19. And, with all the confusion out there, it is of the utmost importance that the community be informed with facts.
The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the northside of Flint and Detroit particularly hard. According to Suzanne Cupal, Public Health Division Director at the Genesee County Health Department, Black/African Americans and Latino/Hispanics are roughly 25% of the population but makeup 46% of COVID-19 related deaths. In Detroit, the state of Michigan, as of August 24th, reports that they have 13,417 reported cases with 1,503 deaths. In Genesee County, the average age of confirmed cases is 54, while the average age of those who have passed due to the virus is 74.
Aurora Sauceda, coordinator for the group is proud to report that the navigators have talked to more than 400 community members and have attended over 10 events. On July 25th, Hasselbring Senior Center in Flint, hosted a drive-through food give-away where people received information on voter registration, census awareness and COVID-19 information which was disseminated by Holly Wilson and Dr. Latressa Gordon. Hasselbring is located on the north end of Flint where many African-American families live.
Holly Wilson is a neighborhood liaison for the Neighborhood Engagement Hub and a public health navigator for Michigan United. In an interview with Flintside, a local newspaper, she said that many small circumstances based around long-held stigmas and lack of access to information have played a big role in the proliferation of COVID-19 in this area.
“A lot of people don’t have health insurance, right? If they do have health insurance, they have this mentality of 'Oh, this is not covered’ or they come from families who never went to the doctor," Wilson said. "They stay at home and they stay really ill and before they get some help, they may perish.”
Sauceda agreed with Wilson that a lack of access to proper information regarding job protection, financial assistance, and eviction protection is leading many to ignore possible symptoms.
“They don’t want to find out if they’re positive, especially if they have a job. That’s another barrier we’re seeing and that’s another factor that’s leading to numbers rising in our Black/Brown communities,” said Sauceda.
Sauceda says many workers and their families are not aware of the protections set in place by legislation like the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. Even in cases when individuals are aware, Wilson said that it may still be difficult for them to make the decision to get tested and stop working. For many in the area who live below the poverty line, the risk of losing their job outweighs that of infecting others.
“Sometimes you can read the words, but don't understand what the words are,” Wilson said. “It’s important that we reach those people because they’re going and they’re putting their families at risk because they’re thinking, ‘I need this McDonald’s job.’ The reality is, there are safeguards put in place.”
For Brownell-Holmes’ older residents, many of whom are retired, the COVID-19 pandemic has been just as difficult to navigate. Hasselbring Senior Center’s location within Brownell-Holmes’ largest park, along with its outdoor pavilion and large indoor common area, has made it a hub for community activities like the food distribution. Fear of contracting COVID-19 paired with the heightened risk of severe health issues in seniors has meant many of Hasselbring’s regulars have been staying home.
According to Beverly Lewis, the senior center’s executive director, even these precautions have proven futile for some.
“We have lost some of our seniors that are members here to the disease,” Lewis said. “We have several who have lost family members. Some are afraid to come out even with all the precautions we’re taking and that’s understandable because ... they know it's people of color, people of age, people with preexisting conditions that are at most risk and they know they fit into those three categories.”
“The fear is there,” Lewis said.
Despite the fear of the virus, Brownell-Holmes has been able to do what many communities have not: stay together. While many have taken to hiding away in their homes, losing virtually all contact with the members of their communities, neighborhood residents have worked to stay safe and make sure others do the same.