As the deadly Spanish Influenza killed 675,000 Americans between 1917 and 1920, that era’s Black healthcare practitioners took the initiative to help African-Americans avoid and recover from that flu because they saw that the public health system would not or could not do so.
Now, as America steps up its 2021 COVID19 vaccination phase, Black doctors and their HBCU (historically Black college and university) colleagues are again filling a void born of the same variants of systemic and structural racism their great grandparents experienced a little over 100 years ago. One example of the parallel is that in 1918, according to a study published in Public Health Reports, Dr. Nathan Francis Mossell, the Black medical director of Philadelphia’s 75-bed Frederick Douglass Memorial Hospital, established a 40-bed emergency annex at St. Peter Claver, a Black parochial school when his hospital beds were quickly exhausted by the Spanish Flu. Mossell got no funding for this from Philadelphia’s Board of Health, although the city had opened many emergency clinics for sick whites.
In early 2020, in response to the current COVID19 pandemic, Dr. James E.K. Hildreth, president and chief executive officer of Meharry Medical College, and other HBCU leaders sought and received $25 million in diagnostic and testing equipment from Thermo Fisher Scientific, which they initially used for COVID19 testing for students and faculty on their campuses, testing that was slow coming from other sources for these students and the communities they came from. “We’ll be having discussions on how to do this for the wider community,” Hildreth said. “We see an opportunity for the wider community to be enhanced. We’ve asked the Ways and Means committee of Congress for $5 million to allow medical schools to set up a consortium for a national testing approach.”
Hildreth also envisions a role for HBCU’s in making vaccinations more efficient for communities of color. “The solution is we must take the vaccinations to their communities, to meet the people where they are,” Hildreth said. “With the right training and coordination schools, churches and other community organizations could develop model field hospitals for testing and vaccinations, and once we have an easy to transport vaccine, we can use a mobile approach—medical vans that will extend the reach of vaccines and testing.”
Other Black doctors share Hildreth’s view that Black people and other people of color suffered a big spike in infections and deaths early in 2020 because they were never surveyed or tested properly early on. Health officials, they asserted,, simply surveyed and tested areas and locations where Black folks do not congregate so they got missed, and studies support their conclusion
In December 2020, a study of public health departments was published in the Journal of the NPS Center for Homeland Defense and Security in conjunction with NCCU (North Carolina Central University), an HCBU in Durham, North Carolina.
This study outlined troubling details about the readiness of public health departments across the country in terms of dealing with a pandemic like COVID19.
The study showed that state and local public health departments were steadily cut in size and scope as state legislatures cut state and local taxes.