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'We went through absolute chaos': Black church community struggled to get tested for COVID as virus swept through congregations

People from eight primarily-black West Virginia churches gathered at Friendship Baptist Church...
People from eight primarily-black West Virginia churches gathered at Friendship Baptist Church in mid-March for a celebration. In the weeks to follow, dozens who were at the service got sick and two died.(WDTV)
Published: May. 6, 2020 at 3:49 PM EDT
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A quiet baptist church sits on a hilltop in the small community of Everettsville in Monongalia County close to the Marion County border.

While silence there is prevalent on most days, on Sunday March 15th, upwards of 120 churchgoers from Monongalia, Marion and Harrison counties filled the air with praise when they packed into the Friendship Baptist Church to celebrate a minister's anniversary.

The celebration slowly turned into chaos.

"In hindsight, that might've been the worst possible thing that we could do at the time," Romelia Hodges said. She's a member of the Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Clarksburg, one of eight primarily black churches represented at the celebration.

What they didn't know - the coronavirus was lurking and about to take a toll on the black community they didn't see coming.

Until that day, there were no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state. Leaders, from the governor to President Trump, praised the state for being the last in the country without any cases.

"There was a false sense of reality," Hodges said. "That had an impact on this church gathering. We thought, 'It's okay. This might be our last church gathering. Let's go and have a beautiful ceremony.'"

One by one, members of the congregations who attended the celebration got sick. Many went to the hospital.

Two of them died.

Among them was 88-year-old Viola York Horton, the first in West Virginia claimed by the virus. Rick Hood, an associate minister at Friendship Baptist Church, also died after contracting the virus. He was 62.

As church members saw each other getting sick, they knew there was a problem.

"In my opinion, this was an epidemic," Hodges said. "It required the immediate attention of public health officials and state officials to make sure that - not only did it affect the African American community of Fairmont West Virginia that's 3% (of the county's population), but the larger community of Marion County as a whole."

Many of them didn't show symptoms for weeks.

While they quarantined in their homes, they learned testing wouldn't be available to them.

Some were turned away at testing sites for not meeting certain criteria laid out by the CDC. Some couldn't get referrals from a physician because they didn't have one. Problems also arose figuring out if they'd need to pay for the physician visits.

Scarce testing availability didn't help.

They turned to state lawmakers and the Marion County Health Department early in the outbreak looking for help tracking down everyone who was at the church service.

All of this happened while the West Virginia National Guard was sent to nursing homes, including to Sundale in Morgantown, to test everyone at those facilities.

"The testing criteria, probably in my opinion, could've been and should've been relaxed," said Marion County Health Department administrator Lloyd White. "However, to do that would not have accomplished a lot of goals, because one, we didn't have a lot of test kits, two, we didn't have the capacity to run the tests themselves. I think as those capacities increase, we will, and perhaps we should see additional testing guidelines come down the pipe."

Hodges worked off a photo of the gathering, pastors' lists and her memory to figure out who was at the church that day.

She looked for some direction she said she didn't get from the health department to help contact-trace everyone at the ceremony.

"With contact tracing, I have to stress this, if we call somebody and they don't answer the phone or don't call us back, then we move on. We'll go back. 10 people may take 25 phone calls," White said. "That takes a lot of time. For contact tracing to be effective, it takes communication and cooperation. Without either of those, we're just not going to be effective in getting the information we need to decrease the risk of transmission."

White said the health department has the resources to effectively contact trace; staff can go door-to-door to reach people if they don't answer their phones, he said.

"As a last option, we do go try to go to their house or wherever they may be to get the information we need to do it," White said.

Hodges also looked to Senator Joe Manchin for help. She worked with representatives from his staff to compile a list of people at the ceremony. His staff coordinated broad testing approval for churchgoers at UHC in Bridgeport.

"We just said, 'Lloyd, do what you know is right. We'll back you up. I'll take the blame for it. If someone wants to call you up and raise Cain, tell them to call Senator Manchin,'" Manchin said. "He told me to do it. Sometimes you've just got to ask for forgiveness and the hell with it. The rules didn't make any sense at all and people were hurting."

Manchin grew up with members of the Morning Star Baptist Church in Fairmont, one of the congregations hit hardest by the virus.

This outbreak hit home.

"When you've known families all your life, how good they are, and the heart they have from people, heck yeah it hurts," Manchin said. "It hurts when you see your family and your friends hurting and they know they need help."

Members of North Central West Virginia's black community feel they've been left out of the state's response to the coronavirus.

"This disease has just come like a massacre. It's a mass massacre," said Del. Danielle Walker, D-Monongalia. "Why is there not an exception for the black and brown communities to get tested? Why do we not have pop-up testing sites in the black and brown communities?”

Walker also worked with the group and Senator Manchin's office to get testing.

Hodges contacted her and other delegates early in the outbreak looking for help. Delegates representing Marion County, including Mike Caputo, said they never received phone calls or messages.

Walker made other delegates from Marion and Monongalia counties aware of the church outbreak. Caputo said they sent a letter to Governor Jim Justice but still haven't received a response. He plans to meet with Hodges at a later date.

"This is a public health crisis," Walker said. “The vulnerable population isn’t just our elderly. It’s the black and brown community. It’s someone who has a compromised immune system. Yet these folks aren’t even being brought into the conversation. That is malice, that is neglect, and that is discrimination.”

On Wednesday, more than 50 days into the state's response to the virus - the governor announced targeting testing will begin in the state's African American communities, including in Marion and Monongalia Counties.

At the same briefing, the state's Coronavirus Czar Dr. Clay Marsh identified the African American community as a vulnerable population, while DHHR Secretary Bill Crouch said the state has formed an African American coronavirus advisory task force. It hasn't been said who will be part of that group.

Del. Larry Rowe, D-Kanawha, has introduced a bill in the state legislature every year since 2015 that would establish a minority health task force. Delegate Walker cited it as a necessary policy change for the state to move forward.

As for the church members, when their testing was finally approved, many of them couldn't make the long journey to Bridgeport for testing. Most are elderly.

Their community hospital, Fairmont Regional Medical Center, closed weeks before the pandemic hit West Virginia.

Hodges took it upon herself to drive many of them to get tested, all while her husband was severely sickened by the virus. He and other members of her family have a rare immune disease.

She also tested positive.

"We went through absolute chaos within our community," Hodges said

More than 50% of Marion County's cases at one point were in the black community. The county is 3% black.

Hodges now wants to make sure her community is brought into the conversation and can affect change.

"When we lift this community up, we are actually lifting up the state, the local area, and the country as well," Hodges said. "When you have the ability to have diversity at the table and you're directly speaking to the folks who know their cultures, you have the ability to affect change in a larger and greater way."