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Black Health Care Professionals Help Black Communities Battle Pandemic

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Forty-four percent of Philadelphia's residents are Black. So when the coronavirus erupted last spring, one of the city's Black doctors got really frustrated with how slow the government was responding. So she decided to take action. Nina Feldman of WHYY reports.

NINA FELDMAN, BYLINE: Dr. Ala Stanford is a pediatric surgeon. When the pandemic hit in March, she couldn't do her job. So, like a lot of people, she hunkered down in front of the TV with her husband and kids.

ALA STANFORD: And then the reports came out the first week of April saying, particularly in Philadelphia, that Black people were contracting the disease and dying at a rate greater than everyone else. It just hit me like, what is going on?

FELDMAN: At the same time, Stanford was hearing from friends that they couldn't get tests because they didn't have a doctor's note or didn't meet testing criteria.

STANFORD: All these reasons, in my mind, were barriers and excuses and, in essence, decided in that moment that we were going to test the city of Philadelphia.

FELDMAN: While her mom rented a minivan, Stanford started recruiting volunteers among the doctors and nurses she knew. She got the test kits from LabCorp, court where she had an account through her private practice.

STANFORD: When they asked how I was going to pay for the uninsured people, I said, you're going to bill me. And I'm going to figure out how to pay for it later. But I can't have someone die for a test that costs $200.

FELDMAN: How did you get the word out?

STANFORD: Church.

FELDMAN: The testing van would set up in a church parking lot or pop open a tent on a street corner. People livestreamed themselves getting tested on social media. By May, the Black Doctors Covid-19 Consortium was testing up to 300 people a day.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Try not to move. Just keep really still. I'm going to take one of these cotton swabs and put it in each nasal passage to the count of five.

FELDMAN: Tavier Thomas first got tested back in April. He works at a T-Mobile store, and his co-worker had tested positive. Then he started feeling short of breath.

TAVIER THOMAS: People's phones were nasty before COVID. So, you know, I touch probably a hundred phones a day. I wanted to get tested. And I wanted to make sure that the people who tested me were, like, Black. You know what I mean? And so it was perfect.

FELDMAN: And why did you want to make sure that the people testing you were Black?

THOMAS: I'm a historian and Africana studies major at college. And so to be truthful, when, like, new diseases drop, I'm a little about, like, the mainstream testing or sticking anything in me. I'm going to be truthful with you. I'm a little weird about. So...

FELDMAN: Thomas pointed to the 19th century white surgeon J. Marion Sims, who performed gynecological experiments on enslaved Black women in the American South, and other examples.

THOMAS: The Tuskegee experiment. This was, like, within my grandparents' lifetime, where they just watched them die from the disease. So I'm cool. And good all like just random - (laughter) being tested and whatnot.

FELDMAN: This time, Thomas brought his brother McKenzie Johnson with him to get tested.

MCKENZIE JOHNSON: For me personally at the moment, I don't have, like, insurance. So this was the best possible choice for me.

FELDMAN: He'd never been tested before.

JOHNSON: It's not as bad as I thought it won't be. Yeah, like, I mean, you cry a little bit. They search in your soul a little bit.

FELDMAN: (Laughter).

JOHNSON: But no, it's fine.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: One, two, three, four, five. All done.

FELDMAN: After its first few months, the group earned the attention and funding of the city and a few foundations. Stanford appreciates the support, but she still wonders why this all fell to her.

STANFORD: And, unfortunately, the value put on some of our poorest areas is not demonstrated. It's not shown that those folks matter enough. That's my opinion. They matter to me. That's what keeps me going.

FELDMAN: For NPR News, I'm Nina Feldman in Philadelphia.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUILTY GHOSTS' "WOES")

MARTIN: This story comes from NPR's partnership with WHYY and Kaiser Health News.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUILTY GHOSTS' "WOES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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