One of Florida’s biggest disparities: How coronavirus spread in Pinellas’ Black community

Marilyn Bell, 65 is a retired Pinellas school teacher who believes she contracted the coronavirus while volunteering for a children's enrichment program at a community rec center in St. Petersburg, Fla. She is seen here recovering at her home.

Marilyn Bell, 65 is a retired Pinellas school teacher who believes she contracted the coronavirus while volunteering for a children's enrichment program at a community rec center in St. Petersburg, Fla. She is seen here recovering at her home. (BOYZELL HOSEY | Tampa Bay Times)

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August 7, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — Ron Dock was careful. He stocked up on supplies to weather the pandemic. When he had to go out, he wore a mask and gloves. But he rarely left the house.

As cases in Florida remained low through May, Dock thought he may have made it through. But the 70-year-old veteran began having headaches, then fatigue.

Overnight, his sense of smell disappeared. Perplexed and alarmed, he tried waving ammonia under his nose — but could detect nothing.

Finally, he began coughing.

In the first week of June, Dock tested positive for the coronavirus. His symptoms were mild, but he quarantined alone in his room for four difficult weeks.

“I had panic attacks every day,” Dock said. “I had visions of being on a ventilator, of dying in the hospital alone without my wife.”

Dock is one of nearly 3,000 Black residents in Pinellas County to test positive for the coronavirus.

In Pinellas, Black residents are 2.5 times as likely to contract the coronavirus than white residents, state data shows.

That’s one of the largest disparities in Florida. Among the 12 counties with over 500,000 people, only Duval has a similar gap.

The infections are centered in a handful of neighborhoods on the south side of St. Petersburg, where most of the city’s Black residents live.

The communities have been among the worst-affected in the state.

“I fear we may be an epicenter in the United States right now,” said Jabaar Edmond, a Pinellas-based organizer for Florida For All. “When you drill down, Florida is now the epicenter. And St. Pete is one of the epicenters of Florida.”

There’s not one clear reason why the virus has spread so quickly among Pinellas’ Black residents. But experts and community leaders like Edmond point to a history of systemic neglect and failure on the part of state and local government that has left Black residents in jobs that expose them to the virus, in dense housing that spreads the infection and with pre-existing conditions that make getting an infection all the more dangerous.

Those factors — and a history of segregation that forced a majority of Pinellas’ Black residents into close proximity — can make it easy for the virus to spread quickly through the larger community, experts say.

“COVID took a community that was already injured and in distress and kicked them while they were down,” Edmond said. “It shouldn’t have taken a genius to see that COVID was going to hurt us.”

By the first reports that cases were creeping up in Florida, the coronavirus was already sweeping through Pinellas County’s Black community.

The infection rate in the Black population spiked early in June, and has remained high ever since. At its worst, the infection rate among Black residents reached 55 infections per 100,000 people every day. The rate among white residents never reached half that number.

Today, although Black residents make up 11 percent of the population in Pinellas County, they account for more than 23 percent of infections and 22 percent of hospitalizations, in cases where race is known.

That’s an important note about the data. Race is unknown for over one-third of infections in Florida. In Pinellas County, race is unknown for 24 percent of cases. However, race is known for almost all hospitalizations and deaths.

The majority of deaths in Pinellas have been among white residents over the age of 65. But 11 of the 36 residents under the age of 65 who died due to COVID-19 were Black — a rate three times higher than white residents, when accounting for population.

In total, 2.7 percent of Pinellas’ Black residents have tested positive for the coronavirus. It’s the highest infection rate among Florida’s 12 largest counties. And 2.5 times the infection rate of white residents.

In recent weeks, the number of new cases seems to be stabilizing for Black residents. The number fell to 34 per day for every 100,000 people, on average over the past week.

The infection rate among white residents is also coming down but at a slower rate than for Black residents, so the gap between the two groups is falling. In the last week, 17 out of every 100,000 white residents were infected each day, on average.

In other parts of the state, the disparity is getting bigger. In the past week, the number of new cases among Black residents has exploded in smaller counties in the Tampa Bay region, including Sarasota and Citrus, where Black residents are 2.7 times as likely to be infected.

The gap between Black and white residents has remained lower in Hillsborough County, but Black residents there are still 60 percent more likely to be infected than white residents.

The legacy of redlining has made Pinellas among the most segregated counties in the state, according to analysis from the University of Wisconsin’s County Health Rankings — condensing 50 percent of the Black population into just four zip codes in the southern tip of St. Petersburg.

Those zip codes — 33701, 33705, 33712 and 33711 — make up only 9 percent of the county’s population, yet contain 18 percent of its infections.

When a substantial percentage of the population in a small area is infected with a highly contagious virus, people can be easily exposed, despite their best efforts to stay safe.

Two weeks after Dock tested positive, Marilyn Bell started to feel unwell. The retired school teacher, 65, developed symptoms in a familiar pattern: headache, fever, loss of smell and then coughing.

Bell believes she caught the virus at a city rec center where she volunteers with the children’s program. She took every precaution but thinks a sick co-worker may have infected her.

At one point, her cough became so bad that she thought her chest would cave in. She drove herself to the hospital, where she spent two days. “I was miserable, the sickest I had ever been,” Bell said.

Although Bell has mostly recovered, she still occasionally has trouble breathing. She’s taken four coronavirus tests, but they keep coming back positive. More than six weeks later, she remains quarantined alone in her home.

Experts and community organizers point to a number of factors that may have exacerbated the spread of the coronavirus among Black residents.

The workplace can be a major source of exposure, “especially when you look at the workforce in south St. Petersburg and the type of jobs they’re in,” said Nikki Capehart, the director of urban affairs for the city of St. Petersburg.

Census data shows that nearly half of Black workers in Pinellas are employed in health, education or service industries — where the CDC has noted that workers have more chances to be exposed to the virus. Close contact with the public or other workers, not being able to work from home and not having paid sick days make these jobs particularly dangerous in a pandemic.

“That alone is a major part of exposure,” Capehart said, “when you have so many in the Black community in south St. Petersburg that are in the service industry and couldn’t necessarily stay home because they were essential workers.”

Ebony Haugabook, who works as a shift manager at a local fast-food chain, said her biggest source of anxiety is contact with co-workers.

“You have people coming in to work, they have a rasp in their voice, they’re coughing and sneezing, and then they have their mask halfway on,” Haugabook said. “Any you ask if they’re sick, and they’re like: ‘No, I always sound like this.’ And it’s because they can’t miss work.”

Once a family member is infected on the job, it is easy for the virus to spread, especially in homes with multiple generations living together, said David Vlahov, a professor of epidemiology and public health at the Yale School of Nursing.

In Pinellas, Census data shows that 47 percent of Black families live in multi-family buildings, compared to just 34 percent of white residents. Nationally, Black families are twice as likely to live in homes with three or more generations, according to analysis from the Economic Policy Institute.

“In our community, many of us cannot afford rent,” said Maria Scruggs, former head of the St. Petersburg chapter of the NAACP. “What you find, unofficial, is many households doubling or tripling up on people who live there. And when you have three or four generations of people in the same house, that just doesn’t allow for the type of distance between even close family members.”

Being exposed to the coronavirus doesn’t always lead to infection, Vlahov said. But the virus can easily overwhelm an immune system weakened by pre-existing health issues.

Data from the Florida Department of Health indicates that, adjusting for population age, Black residents in Pinellas have a significantly higher risk of heart disease, lung disease and diabetes — all of which can be fatal in conjunction with a COVID-19 infection.

“Look at AIDS, hepatitis, asthma, heart disease, high blood pressure and cholesterol that are affecting the St Pete Southside community right now,” Edmond said. “I don’t want to minimize the seriousness of COVID-19, but I do want to emphasize the seriousness of these seven or eight medical conditions that Black people are even more susceptible to COVID.”

City officials say they are paying attention to the community. Early on, two temporary pop-up testing sites were set up in Childs Park and Bartlett Park, in the heart of the worst affected communities. “But we didn’t see a lot of turnout at either,” said Amber Boulding, the emergency manager for St. Petersburg.

She acknowledged, though, that “we didn’t have a lot of testing early on, so people didn’t know their status, and then they were spreading — whether it was at home or at work or at the playground.”

Some community leaders expressed frustration with residents for not heeding medical advice until it was too late.

“Until it started to hit home for folks — until I’ve actually known someone who contracted it or lost their life — I don’t know that people were convinced,” said Jason Bryant, a co-founder of 100-Plus Black Men, a community group that works to promote a positive image to St. Petersburg’s Black residents.

That skepticism is rooted in a history of race-based medical injustice, according to community leaders and experts.

One frequently cited example is the Tuskegee syphilis experiments. In 1932, the U.S. Public Health Service infected 399 Black men so that researchers could observe the course of the disease if left untreated.

Research by Harvard economist Marcella Alsan found that a decade after the experiments were uncovered by reporters in 1972, demand for medical services among Black men fell drastically, decreasing life expectancy as a result.

The skepticism that Alsan’s research predicted is tangible in St. Petersburg.

“It’s a lack of education, but it’s also the history of Tuskegee and the historical traumas of the experiments done on us,” said Antonio Brown, another co-founder of 100-Plus Black Men.

“People here are not so trusting of testing and vaccines,” Brown continued. “The medical community failed our community. That’s why they’re not taking precautions.”

Scruggs said COVID-19 is just the latest in a long history of events to disproportionately hurt St. Petersburg’s Black residents.

“You have the data over time to look at the gaps in income, the health outcomes, the economic outcomes,” said Scruggs. “All of this is well-documented, and that’s why COVID-19 is rampant in my zip code.”

Correction: Maria Scruggs is the former head of the St. Petersburg chapter of the NAACP. An earlier version of this story was incorrect.

Ian Hodgson, Staff Writer, Tampa Bay Times


Correction: Maria Scruggs is the former head of the St. Petersburg chapter of the NAACP. An earlier version of this story was incorrect.

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