While many Americans nationwide began working from home almost three months ago in the face of a global pandemic, Quinton Scott didn’t have that option at his job as a security guard. That’s how the 64-year-old Dallas resident believes he contracted the coronavirus in early April, after he said a man coughed on him during a shift.
Scott initially tested negative. But within a few days, he became so sick he couldn’t walk. He then tested positive for COVID-19 and stayed in the hospital for nearly a week while doctors treated him with remdesivir.
Despite a lingering fatigue, Scott considers himself blessed to have survived. He’s in a high-risk group on many counts: He’s in his 60s, had a heart attack more than a decade ago and takes blood pressure medication. He is also black, and in Texas and the U.S., COVID-19 has been particularly brutal to black Americans. They’ve been more likely than any other racial or ethnic group to be hospitalized or to lose their lives, available data shows.
In South Dallas, where Scott attends church and has aided the area’s homeless population for 30 years, he’s watched the predominantly black community quickly become a hotspot for the virus.
“I was one of the lucky ones,” Scott said. “So many other people have died.”
COVID-19 has exposed long-running disparities in Dallas’ black communities, especially poorer ones. It’s hard to shelter in place if you don’t have a permanent home, or you share a cramped apartment with several others. It’s tough if you can’t pay for grocery delivery.
“When you don’t have the financial wherewithal, you can’t afford to be isolated,” said Stephen Linder, a researcher at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. And that means more potential exposure to the coronavirus.
Nationally, the disease has claimed a greater share of black lives than any other racial or ethnic group: Black residents make up 13 percent of the U.S. population but 27 percent of all confirmed COVID-19 cases. In Texas, they have also gotten sick or died at higher rates.
In Dallas County, the disease has also struck a number of predominantly African-American neighborhoods — especially lower-income ones, The Dallas Morning News found by analyzing the county’s reported COVID-19 cases and 2018 census data. Most of the cases are in the southern half of Dallas, in neighborhoods that have suffered decades of neglect and disparity. COVID-19 underscores that historic divide.
‘I have COVID-19’
Not far from downtown lies South Dallas, an area that includes many of the city’s established black neighborhoods. The Dallas Civil Rights Museum is here, along with the Dallas Black Chamber of Commerce. So is the Juanita Craft House, named after the civil rights leader and city councilwoman who grew up here.
The area is also one of the city’s most vulnerable. More than a third of its residents live in poverty. Last year Dallas County named the area’s two main zip codes, 75215 and 75210, among the county’s five unhealthiest based on life expectancy, access to medical and mental health care, uninsurance rates and other measures.
The 75215 and 75210 zip codes – which lie south of Interstate 30 and east of the Trinity River – also have some of the highest COVID-19 infection rates in Dallas County. According to The News’ analysis: 75215 has about 130 cases, which works out to 7.7 cases for every thousand residents, more than double the county’s rate. And 75210 has about 50 cases, which is also above the county rate.
Locals say it’s also been difficult for residents to get tested, especially for those without a car, and they suspect the number of actual cases is higher.
“We have some of the highest rates of diabetes and high blood pressure and asthma and all the other chronic diseases. So, layered on top of the possibility of being infected with COVID, that concerns me,” said LaSheryl Walker, director of community outreach at St. Philip’s School and Community Center, located in the heart of South Dallas.
St. Philip’s runs a food pantry that was popular well before the pandemic. In early May, dozens of cars stretched down the street, waiting to drive up to tents where several masked volunteers loaded bags of milk, eggs, bread, produce and other groceries into trunks. Clients without cars formed a separate line, many with grocery carts, walkers or strollers to help carry food back home. In a given week, the pantry serves 170 households, giving each 82 pounds of food. Another 120 people typically show up without appointments.
Mary Brashear, a retired hairdresser, has lived most of her 89 years in South Dallas. She’s stayed healthy, but her son-in-law in Lancaster is recovering from COVID-19. A former salon client of Brashear’s recently died of the disease at age 71, she said.
She’s grateful for the food pantry at St. Philip’s, where she’s a regular.
“This pantry keeps me going,” said Brashear, wearing a pale pink mask. “I go out for bread or milk if I run out, but other than that I’m in the house.”
The school’s longtime headmaster, Terry Flowers, recalled one client who worried she wouldn’t be able to make her regular visit. “I’m at the hospital. I have COVID-19,” he recalled the woman telling him over the phone.
Still, Flowers said, the woman showed up the next day saying, “I did test positive, but I need my food.”
Flowers said the food pantry had to turn her away. She’s doing better and has been resting at home, he said.
In many low-income areas like South Dallas, the ability to social distance and quarantine is a luxury. The problems go beyond unstable or crowded housing. For instance, lower-wage jobs like working in restaurants or retail or home health can’t be done remotely.
And if you don’t come to work, you don’t get paid.
Linder and his fellow researchers at UT Health Science Center have been studying a cruel twist of the pandemic: Neighborhoods such as South Dallas, where a large share of residents already battle obesity, diabetes, hypertension and heart disease, are more likely to suffer severe cases of COVID-19 – the kind that sends patients to the hospital, lands them on ventilators and might kill them.
These neighborhoods face more disease to begin with because of social determinants that conspire against them, like not enough grocery stores with fresh healthy food, and too few doctors to help people manage their health.
It sets off a domino effect in which one chronic disease leads to another, Linder said. If you can’t afford healthy food and it’s hard to come by, you eat worse. If you’re in a high-crime area and don’t feel safe outside, you get less exercise. Obesity can lead to diabetes, which can lead to heart disease and hypertension.
Few testing sites nearby
Several South Dallas residents and community leaders said they’re not surprised to see so many COVID-19 cases in their area. But they believe the real numbers are even higher – especially with so few testing sites nearby or the means to get to sites farther away.
The City Council recently approved mobile testing for five zip codes in southeast and southern Dallas, including 75215. Many households in those areas don’t have access to a vehicle and aren’t able to travel to established testing sites, like the drive-through ones at the American Airlines Center in Victory Park and Ellis Davis Field House off Interstate 20, near DeSoto.
For residents of South Dallas, they might as well be in a different country, said Flowers, the St. Philip’s headmaster. Many residents don’t own a car. And even if you could take public transportation there, you can’t just walk up to those testing centers.
“I absolutely think the real number is a lot higher,” said Rodrigua Ross, executive director of the Park South YMCA. She noted that many testing sites (though not the two county drive-up ones) require a doctor’s referral. Many South Dallas residents don’t have a primary care provider.
“It’s a community where we oftentimes wait until what’s a cold becomes pneumonia, and we’re off to the ER,” said Chris Simmons, pastor at Cornerstone Baptist Church. “And so people [have] had to ride out those concerns. And I think that…contributes to the spread of the virus in the community, because people don’t have access to testing readily.”
South Dallas has a community health clinic that serves people whether or not they have insurance — the Foremost Family Health Center, a few blocks from Fair Park on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. But the clinic received only 10 COVID-19 tests around the start of the epidemic, which it quickly used, CEO Joyce Tapley said.
The center was among several in Dallas awarded federal dollars to expand COVID-19 testing – in Foremost’s case, approximately $200,000, Tapley said. Health center managers are finalizing plans to begin drive-up testing by appointment in mid-June.
“Getting money to start doing the tests is a great thing,” she said. “I would certainly think the more tests they did, the more people they may find are positive.”
Scott, the security guard who recovered from the virus, lives closer to Duncanville than the 75215 zip code, but has attended church in the area for decades at Cornerstone Baptist Church.
He has worked with the community’s homeless population for decades with jobs at the Salvation Army and with The Bridge, and worries they’re not receiving the services needed to combat the virus. They’re instead surviving while living in crowded unsanitary conditions, he said.
“Nobody is testing these people in the streets,” Scott said.
At Cornerstone, Pastor Chris Simmons provides as many resources to the community as he can during the pandemic, including showers for homeless people, and expanding the operation hours for a recently-opened laundromat. Cornerstone also normally provides meals for those in need, and Simmons said the church has seen an increase in families seeking help.
Simmons has been pastor at the church for 30 years, and like many, said he’s not surprised by the number of cases in the area. Many people in the community must choose between their health or their paycheck.
“A lot of times, they will go to work while they’re not feeling well, because they feel like they’re not gonna get paid and that will create other kinds of problems,” Simmons said.
Flowers, the St. Philip’s headmaster, worries that reopening the state will hit neighborhoods like his particularly hard.
“When you open up, you give the signal that everything’s fine, let’s relax. There’s very likely to be an uptick, especially in 75215,” he said.
“The data you have now is only a fraction of what is taking place.”
Many residents and leaders say they worry about how the community will bounce back. Ross, the YMCA director, hopes good will come of this – action out of the talk about getting better housing, education, medical care and food for all residents.
“It spurs us as a community to be really thoughtful about moving forward,” she said. “How do we create something that addresses these systemic issues, so this population is not as vulnerable moving forward?”