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Urban League of Long Island panel on the lessons learned from pandemic's early days

A medical worker gives a coronavirus test in

A medical worker gives a coronavirus test in March 2020 in Jericho. A panel of experts said Tuesday night that some communities of color lacked access to medical care and reliable information during the pandemic's early days. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

Access to affordable health care and affective medical information — in good times, a struggle in some communities of color — became even more pronounced in the early days of the pandemic, according to panelists on an Urban League of Long Island webinar Tuesday night.

In late 2019 and early 2020, before the coronavirus had hit the metropolitan region with full force, health leaders trying to get the word out about the lethal nature of COVID-19 had to compete with cultural or family barriers, which in turn exposed a need for more "appropriate public health messaging," said medical experts on the panel.

"When you went to speak to people, they were not really interested in listening to the other narratives," said Karen Coutrier, a registered nurse and an assistant professor at Farmingdale State College, "because there were people from their own countries that were speaking a narrative to them and therefore that was the driving force, more than listening to what the CDC might have been saying."

Coutrier made her comments during the webinar "The Health Equity Issues of COVID-19, Connecting the Dots: What Everyone Should Know." The event was sponsored by the State of Black Long Island Equity Council, a subgroup of the Urban League of Long Island.

Early in the pandemic, people turned toward the "things that they were more comfortable with than those that they feel unsure and uncomfortable with." Coutrier said. "Everyone had their own spin" on how to deal with COVID-19.

Others on the panel wanted more done early in the pandemic to increase access to inexpensive health care in some minority communities, which often lack a "medical infrastructure," said Dr. Shaun Smart, a neurology professor at the University of Texas's medical school and a panelist Tuesday night.

"You have a system where a lot of minorities … don’t have health insurance," said Smart, who teaches at McGovern Medical School at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, where he is a neurohospitalist. "Then you have a culture with a lot of minorities, especially because you don’t have health insurance, you don’t necessarily go to the doctor [if you] feel a little bit ill."

While Long Island ranked low in a 2018 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Social Vulnerability Index, which ranks communities to see how vulnerable they would be in a medical emergency, that wasn’t the case in parts of Queens and Bronx, said Dr. Tochi Iroku-Malize, a professor at the Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra University/Northwell.

The index was higher in those boroughs, she said, noting those were among areas where freezer trucks lined up to store bodies of those killed by COVID-19.

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