April 30, 2020

NAACP officials keep wary eye on New Mexico data

A local advocacy group is keeping a watchful eye on equitable health care for African Americans during the pandemic.

Pamelya Herndon, the first vice chair of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Albuquerque chapter, said the NAACP is not aware of discrimination against African-Americans during the pandemic in this state. But, the NAACP encouraged African-Americans to reach out to their local NAACP chapter if they experience prejudice during the public health emergency.

One reason to worry is because African-Americans tend to have higher rates of high blood pressure and diabetes, which could put them at greater risk for mortality from COVID-19 related illness than whites. Herndon said she would like to see a plan put into place to better protect the African-American community, especially given the already present health disparities.

In some areas of the U.S., African-Americans represent a disproportionately large number of both test positive cases and mortalities. Joseph Cotton, Hobbs branch NAACP president, put it this way.

“If America gets a cold, African Americans get pneumonia,” he said during a live streamed meeting earlier this week.

Herndon hosted the meeting that included Cotton and other NAACP officials to discuss some of these issues with a panel of experts. One of those experts, Dr. Anthony Sanders, dialed in from Indianapolis. An obstetrician-gynecologist, Sanders said that scientists believe pregnant women who test positive for COVID-19 won’t give the illness to the baby while pregnant.

But once the baby is born, it has to be separated from the mother if the mother has the respiratory illness to protect the infant, he said. Sanders said that a new mother who tests positive for the disease should pump breast milk and a healthcare worker or other support person should give the baby the milk through a bottle to further reduce contact between baby and mother while the mother is ill.

The panelists worried that there could be unaccounted deaths within the African-American community in New Mexico, creating a hidden problem. This is a problem that has occurred elsewhere.

Herndon cited other cities where disproportionate numbers of African-Americans have tested positive and died of COVID-19 related illness. Although so far that hasn’t happened in New Mexico regarding African-Americans, the advocacy group remains wary that it could.

“We’re trying to ensure things don’t get out of hand so we don’t end up with a Detroit or a Chicago,” she told NM Political Report.

As of Wednesday, 2.76 percent of cases in New Mexico are among African-Americans, according to the state Department of Health. The demographic makes up about 2.6 percent of the state’s population.

Native Americans are the group that is the hardest hit by the pandemic in New Mexico. According to the state’s data, Indigenous people make up 52.80 percent of the COVID-19 test positive cases, but about 11 percent of the state’s population. People who are between 50 and 59 represent the most cases in the state within a particular age group. But people in their 30s and 40s, with 15.42 percent and 15.96 percent of the cases respectively, are not far behind.

Dr. Karissa Culbreath, assistant professor in pathology at the University of New Mexico and the scientific director of infectious disease for Tricore Reference Laboratories, told NM Political Report through email that the state is “well ahead of many other states in aggregating our data.”

“We are one of the few states actually providing race-based data and we were among the first to begin providing this,” she wrote.

Culbreath was also a guest on the panel. 

Voting is another concern for the NAACP. So far, 40 people have tested positive for COVID-19 who either voted or worked the polls during the Wisconsin primary earlier this month. The Wisconsin courts ruled that the state had to move forward with its primary as planned, even though other states rescheduled or switched to mail-in ballots in early April in response to the pandemic.

The New Mexico Supreme Court ruled earlier this month that the state cannot cancel in-person voting and must hold the primary on June 2 as it normally would. However, they ordered election administrators to send absentee ballot applications to every registered voter who is eligible to vote in the primary. The county clerk for Bernalillo County said during an Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller press conference last week that she encourages voters to mail-in their ballots and that not as many polling places would be open on June 2. One concern is poll workers, who are volunteers and often are seniors, would be at greater risk for mortality from COVID-19.

Related: State Supreme Court rejects petition for all-mail primary election

Voting is historically important to African-Americans because whites suppressed African-American voting rights for decades. Herndon said the NAACP will be encouraging African-Americans to vote via absentee ballot so they can stay home on primary day.

Herndon said there is a lot of conversation now around essential workers and stay-at-home orders being lifted, potentially putting African-Americans at greater risk for contracting the infection. Some states, such as Georgia and Montana, have already lifted stay-at-home orders. Texas’ governor said he will lift his stay-at-home order Thursday.

Herndon praised New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s handling of the public health emergency so far. Lujan Grisham has said stay-at-home orders will remain in place in New Mexico until at least May 15 despite increased pressure from officials around the state to relax the order sooner. 

Related: Total COVID-19 cases cross 3,000 as NW NM cases continue to lead state

Herndon said that in New Mexico, the primary place where African-Americans are on the front lines of the illness is in working for big box stores such as Walmart, which have remained open during the pandemic.

“There’s a lot of conversation around essential workers,” Herndon said.