African American churches team up with health department, researchers in response to COVID-19

CNN/ Newswire | 12/3/2020, 11:14 a.m.
The COVID-19 crisis is now affecting everyone, but research shows Black Americans are disproportionately affected negatively.
The pandemic is affecting everyone, but research shows Black Americans are being disproportionately hurt. Some Black churches are now teaming up and preaching about it from the pulpit. Credit: KCTV/KSMO

By Betsy Webster

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (KCTV/KSMO) -- The COVID-19 crisis is now affecting everyone, but research shows Black Americans are disproportionately affected negatively.

That’s why African American churches are now teaming up with UMKC and the KC Health Department to start speaking up about it at church. The effort will involve providing tests and tailoring a messaging campaign that speaks to the community they serve, a community that has historically been distrustful of government and medicine.

“We know that the African-American faith community has tremendous reach and influence in the Black community,” said Jannette Berkley-Patton, a professor at the UMKC School of Medicine who is the principal investigator of a $1.9 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

She is a behavioral psychologist and the director of the UMKC Health Equity Institute.

One of her key collaborators is Reverend Eric Williams, pastor at Calvary Temple Baptist Church. He has been using the power of the pulpit to improve public health for decades, beginning with a push for HIV testing decades ago, speaking to medical science in a way that resonates. Berkley-Patton was part of that effort and others, garnering multiple NIH grants for research the role of the church in improving prevention outcomes for several health conditions that have disproportionately impacted Black Americans.

“We’ve done it before. It’s the same thing that we’ve done with HIV and diabetes. Culturally appropriate. Things that look like church, language that is familiar,” Williams said.

“For instance, our intervention will include things like having sermon guides, testimonials from people who have gotten tested, testimonials from people who have experienced COVID-19,” explained Berkley-Patton.

Another approach Williams said worked with HIV was having the pastor get tested in front of the congregation. He calls it “public demonstrations of testing.”

“It opened up the doors and made people relax a little bit about testing and what it meant. It wasn’t necessarily an admission of guilt,” he recalled. “It was something being done to squelch a public health epidemic.”

He expects testing for COVID-19 will be an easier sell because it doesn’t come with the stigma HIV/AIDS did as a virus most often transmitted sexually or through intravenous drug use.

The venues for that messaging extend beyond the pulpit to include food distribution services, recovery programs, and after-school programs.

“We are working with churches because of that incredible reach that they have. We’re also working with churches because we know that they are trusted institutions,” said Berkley-Patton.

Trust is key, she says, because there’s still a mistrust in some segments of the Black community about medicine.

A notorious example of why is the U.S. Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee that began in the 30s and lasted decades. Hundreds of Black men were told they were being treated for “bad blood,” but never received any treatment. They were lured with free burial plots.

“When you combine the historical injustices along with many of the barriers to health care, good quality healthcare today, it’s no wonder that there’s this medical mistrust,” said Berkley-Patton.

The grant will fund testing, but it’s more than just what you’ve been seeing at drive-thru locations. It’s also a clinical study about what types of messaging are effective.

“It’s one thing to hold a testing site. It’s another thing to see who shows up,” Berkley-Patton clarified.

“They are already saying things from the pulpit. We are already making contact with people. Her role is to prove that what we have been doing and want to continue to do truly works,” said Williams

The study will likely be ready to begin in March or April. That’s when the testing begins as well. There are 16 churches signed up to participate in partnership with the Kansas City Health Department and Calvary Community Outreach Network, the social services arm of Calvary Temple Baptist Church. They will help facilitate contact tracing and link those in need to needed care services.

“It’s one thing to be diagnosed with an ailment but then it’s another thing to take it a step further and make sure you’ve got resources and support for what you’re going through,” said Williams.

The study focuses only on testing, not vaccine distribution, but those involved hope what they learn from this will help prepare them with tools for encouraging vaccination down the road.

The team of clinical investigators on the grant are from UMKC, Children’s Mercy, University of Kansas Medical Center, University of Massachusetts, University of California-San Francisco and Johns Hopkins University.