Why the coronavirus is ravaging Prince George’s County, a rich black county in Maryland

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Prince George’s, one of the wealthiest predominantly black counties in the country, has reported the highest number of coronavirus infections and some of the highest deaths in the Washington area. In the hardest hit neighborhoods, African American and Latino residents make up more than 70% of households. The grim statistics reflect data showing that black Americans are more likely than white Americans to be infected with the new coronavirus and more likely to die from it.

Officials say the pandemic has hit the county of 900,000 people particularly hard because many residents are front-line workers exposed daily to the virus, and Prince Georgians are suffering disproportionately from underlying health conditions that make the more deadly virus.

“He said, ‘I’m the only pharmacist,'” said Bowie resident Nicole Boynes, whose husband Sean suffered from asthma but continued to work in a pharmacy he helped find in Greenbelt. Sean Boynes, a former Air Force captain, died on April 20, aged 46, of Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus.

According to county health statistics, almost 14% of adults in Prince George suffer from diabetes, 36% are obese and 64% of the Medicare population suffer from hypertension – rates above national and national averages. There are fewer hospital and primary care doctor beds than in neighboring jurisdictions, which means residents are less likely to deal with medical problems early. The county also spends less on public health efforts than its wealthier neighbors.

As the number of cases continues to rise, authorities promise to invest more in public health, even if the prolonged economic closure is wiping out government budgets. They are determined to improve well-being and find ways to bring doctors and nurses to communities they claim have been overlooked for too long.

“It served as a magnifying glass for the challenges we knew we had,” said Angela D. Alsobrooks, County Director (D). “We know that when it is finished, we will not be able to resume our activities as usual. “

Death transcends class

The first Maryland coronavirus death, announced on March 18, was a Prince George man in his 60s with underlying health conditions. The deaths that followed were people from poor neighborhoods inside the Capital Beltway and wealthy housing estates outside. According to county data, 130 of African Americans, 15 Latinos and 19 whites were cases in which the victim’s race or ethnicity had been reported.

Analysis by the Washington Post found that among the postal codes with the highest per capita infection rate, there are 20,769, which includes Glenn Dale, and whose median household income is $ 148,800. But there is also 20712, which includes Mt. Rainier, on the border with the district, and has a median household income of $ 54,800.

Jordan, the supermarket worker, lived in Upper Marlboro. Her mother, Zenobia Shepherd, warned her of the risks of the pandemic, but said that Jordan probably did not fully understand.

“She said,” Mom, I’m going to work because no one else is going to help the elderly with their shopping, “said Shepherd. “She only stopped going to work when she couldn’t breathe.”

Shepherd said that the death of her daughter had made her aware of the disparities between the white and black communities. Recently, she tried to buy respiratory masks at her local pharmacy; There were none. When she crossed the river to Alexandria, she had no trouble finding them.

She knows that people in her riding have higher rates of diabetes and heart disease than others in the area. But she also became angry that blacks are dying across the country after not receiving proper care, including a Detroit man who died at his home after being kicked out of three emergency rooms.

“It is not true; it’s not good, “said Shepherd. “I will not allow the underlying conditions to be an excuse for the way the black community is treated in certain communities. “

Supermarket workers in Prince George mourned the death of Jordan, said Bernadette Christian, cashier at Giant in Camp Springs, Maryland. Then they continued to work and worry. She said the employees were treated back to back: angry buyers yelling at them, fear of exposing their families, and then the death of their colleague.

But Christian, 55, hasn’t missed a day of work and has no plans to do so.

“People have to eat,” she said. “You must eat. You can’t not go to work. “

A tense system

The influx of coronavirus patients has sometimes flooded hospitals in Prince George, forcing some patients to be transferred to facilities outside the county.

To add more beds, the state has reopened the Laurel Regional Hospital, which had been closed to a walk-in medical center in late 2018, and is adding beds to the University of Maryland Prince George Hospital Center. at Cheverly and at the Fort Washington Medical Center. A test site has been launched on FedEx Field.

Due to underlying health conditions, many coronavirus patients in Prince George arrive at the emergency room very ill, said Joseph Wright, Acting CEO of Capital Region Health, who oversees the Prince Hospital Center George to Cheverly.

The hospital fatality rate is about 7.2%, said Wright, and the rate of patients who test positive is about 34%, double the rate of the other 12 hospitals in the medical system. from the University of Maryland.

Stephen B. Thomas, who studied health disparities at Prince George’s at the head of the Maryland Center for Health Equity at the University of Maryland, said that racial disparities in health statistics are not limited to covid-19.

A black woman with a university degree is more likely to die before her first birthday than a white mother without a high school diploma, said Thomas, and black Americans often suffer, at 45 or 50, from illnesses. chronicles that white Americans get at 65 or 70.

He explains in part that health care tends to be less available in minority communities. And sometimes there is mistrust in these healthcare provider communities, which historically have responded differently to black and white patients.

“It depends on how society treats you – whether you need to go to hospital or intensive care or need a ventilator,” said Thomas.

Patients often require acute care when they arrive at Fort Washington Medical Center with Covid-19, said president of Eunmee Shim Hospital. The intensive care unit has been full for weeks and doctors are now treating Covid-19 patients in huge medical and surgical tents.

Joe Jenkins, owner of a funeral home at Landover, had received almost 500 calls for a funeral in early April, an unprecedented rate that puts him well ahead of the 1,346 funeral he conducted during the last year. He bought another refrigeration unit, almost doubling its body storage capacity.

“This is a difficult time,” said Jenkins.

Under an emergency order from Governor Larry Hogan (R), funerals are limited to 10 mourners or less.

Those who have lost loved ones because of Covid-19 are only offered direct burials and cremations. Jenkins has decided not to allow viewing, which eliminates the need to embalm the bodies, because “the CDC or no one else knows what happens to the virus after someone dies.”

Paramedic Jason Rush, who is based at a fire station in College Park, said his team had treated several coronavirus patients who couldn’t stop coughing. Others are not coughing, he said, but have trouble breathing.

What they all have in common is dangerously low blood oxygen levels.

Rush said he was wearing gloves, wrap-around eye protection, an N95 mask covered with a surgical mask and a robe. He is afraid of exposing his 9-year-old son to the virus but never thinks twice before answering calls.

“We will do the job anyway,” he said.

Alsobrooks, who grew up in the county, said that she had personally received calls for help from her constituents who feared they would have coronavirus. She called an ambulance earlier this month to tell him that he couldn’t breathe.

Transition and struggle

The story of Prince George makes the story behind it separate from that of highly segregated cities like Detroit, Chicago and New Orleans, said Wright. Prince George’s was a largely white working-class suburb in the 1970s.

Beginning in the 1980s, it attracted more black middle-income and wealthy professionals, creating a rare example of a county that developed better as white residents moved.

Despite the concentration of wealth and education in the county, pockets of poverty remain and the authorities have struggled to systematically attract the type of development – including grocery stores and restaurants – that residents want.

Parts of the county are considered food deserts by the federal government. Dialysis centers are common in its malls. About 11 percent of residents have no insurance, higher than the national and local averages. There are 477 primary care physicians in Prince George, less than half of the 1,420 in neighboring, wealthier and whiter county of Montgomery County, which has about 20% more residents.

“The reasons are structural and they are historic,” said Wright. “The county didn’t come here overnight. “

County tax revenues were limited by a property tax cap law that was first passed in 1978. Prince George County council member Dannielle M. Glaros (D-District 3) said that health and social services had been underfunded since the 1990s, when the county’s budget was cut in a brief recession.

The 2008 housing crisis devastated Prince George’s, wiping out a generation of wealth for residents and leading to a foreclosure crisis and a budget implosion that took years to return.

More than a decade later, Prince George’s invests far less of its own money in health and social services than its neighbors, spending $ 38.94 per capita on these services in 2018, compared to $ 224.25 in the county of Montgomery, $ 90.54 in Anne Arundel County and $ 109.37 in Howard County, according to council budget information.

Even with grants, the county lags behind these other jurisdictions, with Montgomery still spending more than twice as much as Prince George.

Glaros said that the use of grants, which are generally short-term and subject to restrictions, undermines programming and the recruitment and retention of staff. She is pushing for a significant increase in county funding in next year’s budget, despite the expected revenue loss from the prolonged closure.

“People can laugh if they want to, but I will make those big requests,” said Glaros. “Because the need is great and we have to prioritize it.”

Moving forward

Before hospitals overwhelmed, soaring unemployment and deaths, progress was underway in Prince George, according to Alsobrooks, who took office 17 months ago after eight years as county attorney.

A long-delayed regional hospital is expected to open in Largo next year, which could attract primary care and other doctors to the county.

Alsobrooks is pushing for grocery stores, and there is money in its proposed budget for 2021 for a salad bar in each elementary school.

Alsobrooks had asked for a 15% increase in the county health department’s budget, but said the amount will likely have to be cut considerably due to the loss of income.

She and other officials know that an impending recession will be a challenge for everyone and that the county will suffer again. But they hope that the pandemic also requires attention and consideration of the disparities that they have known for a long time.

County Council member Derrick Leon Davis (D-District 6), whose 86-year-old father in Fort Washington recently recovered from Covid-19, said that Prince George was responsible for being a leader .

“We are a majority and minority county with the means,” he said. “If it’s not us, then who?

Representative Anthony G. Brown (D-Md.), Whose District of Congress includes Prince George’s, would like to bring back an initiative he launched as Lieutenant Governor in 2013 that offered tax breaks and other incentives for primary care physicians and social services to locate in underserved areas.

A study by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that in areas where the program was implemented, there were 18,562 fewer hospital stays than in similar areas who did not see the same investment.

The program has saved approximately $ 108 million over four years, said Brown, including millions in Prince George’s County. He is working on a bill in Congress to create something similar nationwide.

Thomas, the professor, said officials were not always eager to make such large investments in the lives of African Americans – or even to acknowledge the extent of the disparities.

“But now is the time to remove the colorblind,” he said.

The highly contagious coronavirus has shown in the darkest terms how the health of one community is linked to that of another.

Thomas said he hoped the new reality would change the calculation of who deserves funding – if not for moral reasons, then for practical reasons.

“This is an informed self-interest,” he said. “If the virus returns to Temple Hills or Capitol Heights, it won’t be long before it spreads. “

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