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Florida state senator pushes for more Covid-19 tests in Tampa-St. Petersburg minority communities

Margie Manning

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Florida State Sen. Darryl Rouson (left) hosted a virtual town hall meeting Friday with Shamarial Roberson, deputy secretary of the Florida Department of Health (center), and Dr. Lanetta Bronte-Hall, president and CEO of he Foundation for Sickle Cell Disease Research.

State Sen. Darryl Rouson is calling on Florida health officials to provide increased access to Covid-19 tests in Midtown St. Petersburg and in East Tampa.

Both areas are home to a significant number of African Americans and other minorities. There are national concerns that communities with people of color have been disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

Those disparities have not shown up in Florida — at least not yet, Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, said during a virtual town hall meeting Friday.

The percentage of African American and other minorities with confirmed Covid-19 cases to date is about in keeping with the state’s overall black and minority population, Shamarial Roberson, deputy secretary of the Florida Department of Health, said during the town hall.

About 16 percent of the state’s population is African American. As of mid-day Friday, about 19 percent of the deaths and 13 percent of all confirmed Covid-19 cases were black patients, Roberson said.

Even though Florida isn’t currently tracking national trends, there’s a large unknown, Rouson said. He said there are concerns that once the pandemic wanes, the numbers may indicate Florida’s minorities were more heavily impacted than is currently believed.

Testing is key to treatment, prevention and recovery, Rouson said.

“Can you commit to providing more testing or access to testing in impoverished areas of East Tampa, Midtown in St. Petersburg?” asked Rouson, whose district includes part of south Pinellas County and part of eastern and southern Hillsborough County.

“We have calls every day with the health officers in your district,” Roberson said. “We are making sure that we’re working through problems and making sure that testing is available. We are continuously, on a regular basis, providing resources for private providers to do testing. We’re providing personal protective equipment. We’re providing swabs. We’re working with them and other community health centers in those communities to make testing available, and we will continue to work in your district and across the state to enhance testing capabilities.”

Black physicians across Florida are very concerned about the current state of affairs, said Dr. Lanetta Bronte-Hall, president and CEO of the Hollywood, Florida-based Foundation for Sickle Cell Disease Research. She’s also president of the Hollywood chapter of the National Medical Association, the collective voice of African American physicians. She recently took part in a statewide conference call to develop an initiative to identify gaps in care, testing and communication.

“What we are hearing in terms of our feet being on the street is for example that individuals are not social distancing. Some of that is because they physically cannot social distance. If they are  living in a home where there are multi generations of family members under one roof, it’s very challenging for them to socially distance. We’ve heard reports of people gathering in parking lots and having block parties,” Bronte-Hall said. “So there is a significant need for us to provide education to our communities so they really understand that yes, African Americans can be affected by Covid-19. We are not immune. This is very real and we have to make sure that our community truly understands the need for social distancing, for hand washing, so that we can thrive in this pandemic.”

Without an approved medication to treat the virus or a vaccine to prevent it, “the most important thing we have is social distancing and other prevention metrics,” Roberson said.

Dr. Jerome Adams, U.S. Surgeon General, said there are national efforts underway to assist communities of color.

“More details will be forthcoming, but we are actively working … (on it through) data collection, targeted outreach to communities of color and increasing financial, employment, education, housing, social and health supports so that everybody has an equal chance to be healthy,” Adams said Friday, according to a report on CNN.

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