Mission Moment: Working to Improve Health in Your Community

June 4, 2020

For the past two months, The University of Alabama College of Community Health Sciences has provided COVID-19 screening and testing in Alabama Black Belt communities.

CCHS has partnered in these efforts with University Medical Center, which the College operates, UA’s Office for Research and Economic Development, Alabama Power and the Livingston Mayor’s Office. Community organizations have also partnered, including the Black Belt Community Foundation, Rural Alabama Prevention Center and Go2Foundation for Lung Cancer.

Using UA’s Mobile Medical Outreach vehicle, COVID-19 screening and testing has been offered in Livingston and Eppes in Sumter County, Uniontown in Perry County, and Halsell and Lisman in Choctaw County. Insurance is not required for screening and testing. Everyone who is tested is contacted within several days by a UA official and informed of their test results.

As of May 27, a total of 447 people had been screened through these efforts. Of those, 285 people exhibited possible COVID-19 symptoms and were tested, and 44 tested positive for the virus. That’s a positive-cases-to-tested-cases rate of 15.4%, almost double the statewide rate of 8% of positive-cases-to-tested-cases.

That and other recent data have recently revealed that counties in Alabama’s Black Belt are experiencing higher rates of COVID-19. The region, historically named for its rich, dark soil, is today burdened with poverty, high unemployment, lack of access to health care and with that associated health problems like high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Hospitals in rural counties, including in the Black Belt, have been closing at alarming rates. Now, this region and their citizens are enduring high rates of COVID-19 and limited access to screening and testing.

“We believed it was important to put some of our resources there,” said Dr. Richard Friend, dean of CCHS and a family medicine physician.

According to public health experts, there is a well-recognized link between social determinants of health and health status. Social determinants of health are conditions in the places where people live, learn, work and play. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stated that poor social determinants of health, such as poverty, access to healthy food, stable housing, safe neighborhoods and good education systems, can impact a wide range of health risks and outcomes.

In addition, social determinants of health can worsen health outcomes for people diagnosed with COVID-19. While the virus can cause mild or moderate symptoms for many people, others, especially older adults and those with existing health conditions, can experience more severe illness and potentially death.

Alabama’s figures reflect that. About 27% of the state’s 4.9 million residents are black, but African Americans represent 44% of the total number of Alabamians who have died from COVID-19.

“My hope is that we can expand screening and testing to even more communities in the Black Belt as more screening supplies and testing become available,” Friend said.