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Public Health Officials Aim To Communicate Better With Minorities


The coronavirus pandemic has had a disproportionately large effect on black Americans. So what can local officials do to make sure that the communities hit hardest are getting the right information about this virus? Here's NPR's Juana Summers.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: Every week, listeners can find Kansas City mayor Quinton Lucas dialing in to KPRS, one of Kansas City's hip-hop and R&B stations.



SUMMERS: He's there to give an update on COVID-19.


SHAY MOORE: We got Mayor Quinton Lucas on the line.

SUMMERS: Lucas, who was elected last year, has been pushing his staff to prioritize appearances like this as part of his response to the pandemic out of concern that some traditional modes of messaging may not be reaching black people.


QUINTON LUCAS: I'm like, get me in some forum where somebody who isn't actually usually seeking out perhaps news and information will catch what's going on.

SUMMERS: In Kansas City and across the country, public health experts and leaders are warning that there isn't enough communication about the coronavirus, even as data shows black Americans facing alarming rates of infection. The reasons for the disparities are not hard to explain. Dr. Jannette Berkley-Patton is a professor at the University of Missouri, Kansas City and the director of its Health Equity Institute.

JANNETTE BERKLEY-PATTON: For the African American community, there are high rates of diabetes and heart disease and many other health conditions or risks that really put the black community at a disadvantage.

SUMMERS: And black Americans are disproportionately a part of the workforce that cannot work from home. They're also fighting against a historic distrust in the health care system that spans decades. Missouri Congressman Emanuel Cleaver is a former mayor of Kansas City.

EMANUEL CLEAVER: That's just an unsavory salad of misbeliefs and living circumstances that created this awful situation.

SUMMERS: That mistrust dates back to the infamous Tuskegee study in which black men with syphilis were unaware that they were intentionally not being treated over 40 years. It's also the result of racial health inequities that have persisted for generations without being resolved by the government or U.S. health systems. Berkley-Patton says that when communicating during a public health crisis, a message must be tailored to individual communities. She also says that the messenger matters.

BERKLEY-PATTON: We need to see these community leaders getting tested. We need to see faith leaders getting tested, virtually, you know, in front of their congregations so that people can actually see this is what the testing process is going to look like.

SUMMERS: Many public health experts and community leaders say that the early misconceptions about the coronavirus remind them of the early years of the HIV epidemic. Pastor Eric Williams of Calvary Temple Baptist Church in Kansas City.

ERIC WILLIAMS: Back in the late '80s, early '90s, what our community heard was that HIV was a white gay male disease and that didn't fit into who we thought we were. And we held onto that misinformation to our detriment.

SUMMERS: Experts also point to data that shows African Americans were less likely to have gotten a seasonal flu shot than their white counterparts. The fear is that the same thing could happen when there is a vaccine for this virus.

Juana Summers, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.