Faith-based leaders are key to strengthening community health

Standing inside Mother AME Zion Church in Harlem early in the COVID-19 pandemic, I was reminded of the civil unrest in the late 1960s and ’70s. My father, Miguel Salas Romero, was co-pastor of La Sinagoga just 10 blocks away. It was a dangerous time, parking under the elevated train—called the L—and leaving services only to see the burning garbage cans and damaged storefronts.

Today’s society is eerily similar to those tumultuous days. As a Latina physician, it’s easy to understand the hardships challenging minority communities. Inexplicably, those challenges—systemic racism, poor living conditions, low life expectancy—still exist. COVID-19 has further exacerbated the glaring disparities within these communities. They should not be pushed aside again. And one of the keys to change is partnership with community leaders, including pastors and other faith-based leaders.

Faith-based leaders are trusted and often serve as a shoulder to lean on for the nation’s most vulnerable. Working with them and giving back is an essential part to recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. This is healthcare’s role.

The glaring disparities in COVID-19 incidence, treatment and recovery are more than significant. Mother AME was among 60 churches in low-income communities in Westchester, New York City and on Long Island that teamed with Northwell Health to offer free diagnostic and antibody testing. The results mirrored other nationwide studies, showing a two- to three-times higher prevalence of COVID-19 compared with more affluent areas, underscoring the need for action.

So far during Northwell’s faith-based initiative, which continues to add churches across metro New York, more than 41,500 antibody tests were performed with nearly 12,700 positives. We also tested more than a 1,400 individuals who had COVID-19 symptoms, 11.8% of whom tested positive. Tests of community members in the boroughs of Queens (37%), the Bronx (35%) and Brooklyn (34%), and Rockland (40%) and Westchester counties (29%) have also shown a high frequency of COVID antibodies.

Not only has coronavirus incidence been worse in minority communities, but CMS data show that Black people enrolled in Medicare were hospitalized with COVID-19 at rates nearly four times higher than their white counterparts. Latinx people were also more than twice as likely to be hospitalized as whites.

So why have these populations been hit so hard? To fully understand, we must know that daily life is not the same for these groups as it is for others. They work essential jobs and take public transportation, leaving them more exposed to the virus. Often, the individuals coming to be tested were also standing in the food pantry line because they don’t have access to healthy foods, which is perhaps the most influential factor in a person’s health.

Other social determinants such as poverty, lack of transportation and poor housing are social injustices that continue to drive bad health outcomes. On Long Island, for example, you can travel from historically wealthy Garden City to lower-income Hempstead in just a few blocks. Living conditions are considerably different, and so is life expectancy.

Of course, no one could have predicted a pandemic exacerbating existing social injustices. Yet, the pandemics of increasing unemployment and poverty are also looming. Healthcare needs to do more. We as individuals need to do more to prevent these pandemics from returning. Racial disparities have been a strong indicator of where COVID will strike the hardest. Healthcare cannot just focus on recovery. We need to go upstream and do the work required today by collaborating with faith-based leaders, equipping them with data and educational tools—for testing, social distancing, mask-wearing and hand hygiene—to help communities respond to COVID-19 and its potential resurgence in the fall.

The partnerships developed with faith-based leaders can serve as a springboard to future bonds and enduring relationships. Today, it’s testing. Tomorrow, it can be vaccines. And the day after that, it can be diabetes or hypertension screening—whatever is the most important health issue confronting the community.

The current crisis has again spotlighted the dire economic and health difficulties that some of our communities may never recover from—unless we find a way to come together in true partnership. United we are stronger. And it’s the only way we can finally alleviate the long-standing injustices our communities continue to face today.

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