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Health commissioner wants to identify coronavirus infections earlier in minorities

Monroe County public health commissioner Dr. Michael Mendoza speaks in a virtual news conference Thursday.
Brett Dahlberg
Monroe County public health commissioner Dr. Michael Mendoza speaks in a virtual news conference Thursday.

Like manyplacesaroundthecountry, Monroe County has found that racial and ethnic minorities are overrepresented in the sickest COVID-19 patients -- those on ventilators. Now, county public health commissioner Dr. Michael Mendoza said, he wants to take some special actions to protect minorities.

Mendoza said the data on ICU rates -- where black people comprise more than half the patients but are only one-sixth of the county’s population -- could change markedly over time. But these first numbers confirm some of his expectations about who would bear the brunt of the epidemic locally.

The health commissioner also said some of those disparities could be explained by inequality in access to medical care. He said there are signs that people of color have had a harder time getting tested for the novel coronavirus, and that they have been waiting longer than white people to seek help. That would track with national trends, too.

“Structural racism has put people of color on the front lines disproportionately,” Mendoza said.

Spotting those trends locally would mean the county has an opportunity to catch infections earlier, saving lives and alleviating some of the burden on the health care system, the health commissioner said.

Identifying people who are at risk of infection or of spreading the disease, encouraging them to seek medical care and providing help with isolation “will make an impact on preventing hospital admissions, ICU admissions, and the need for ventilators,” said Mendoza.

The county has set up the Clarion Pointe hotel in Brighton as isolation housing for people who need to be under isolation or quarantine but cannot do so at home.

Mendoza said the number of people staying in the hotel has been “in the single digits.”

The health commissioner said he asked local health care systems to refer clients who could benefit from staying in the hotel to the county health department.

There is no way to know yet who has developed immunity or how long it might last, but Mendoza said if those tests do become available, he wants to focus them first on communities of color.

“It would matter for getting people back to work and ensuring their paycheck,” Mendoza said.

Forty people have now died of COVID-19 in Monroe County, according to the most recent data from the public health department.

Brett was the health reporter and a producer at WXXI News. He has a master’s degree from the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.
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