By Sam Bojarski
Coronavirus has hit close to home for Dr. Sophia Lubin, an OB-GYN physician at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, like it has for so many New Yorkers.
“I have family members who have been affected myself and even had to end up in the hospital because of it,” Lubin told the Haitian Times.
Seeing the need to educate and serve those most impacted, members of the Haitian-American Alliance of New York (HAA) have assembled a coalition of medical professionals, nonprofits, businesses, churches and volunteers. The newly formed Haitian-American COVID-19 Task Force includes active and retired physicians in multiple fields of medicine who will serve as a resource to Haitian-Americans, as well as the community at large.
The demands of caring for a sick loved one, in many ways, are particularly challenging in a culture where multi-general, communal living arrangements are the norm.
“Culturally, if someone is sick, it’s like, everybody wants to come to that person’s aid and really take care of them,” said Lubin. “With the coronavirus the (sick) person is basically supposed to be isolated.”
Lubin, 42, lives in a household in Queens that includes her parents and two children. To limit the chances of spreading the virus, she said her family is using cell phones to communicate with each other, even while under the same roof. The virus has already hospitalized her uncle and impacted several of her patients, both during and after their pregnancies.
“I think it’s wreaking havoc, the same way that it is in the rest of the city,” Lubin said about the impact of coronavirus on the Haitian community.
Central Brooklyn, the epicenter of New York’s Haitian community, has been hit particularly hard. Data released by the New York City Department of Health shows that over 51% of patients in Flatbush and East Flatbush who were tested for coronavirus received positive results. This share of positive test results was among the highest across all Brooklyn neighborhoods.
According to Yolette Williams, HAA president and chief coordinator of the coronavirus task force, health crises of this scale often disproportionately impact poor, bilingual communities of color.
“It’s a health crisis, but the impact is huge, a lot of people have lost their jobs, there’s a lot of anxiety,” said Williams.
Lower income residents are more vulnerable to economic consequences like job loss and may struggle to cover medical expenses.
NYC Health data for Flatbush-Midwood and East Flatbush shows that the proportion of adults without health insurance is 16% and 15%, respectively, compared to 12% of residents citywide. In Flatbush-Midwood, 22% of residents live in poverty, while 57% are considered rent-burdened ‒ a rate that is well above the New York City average of 51%.
Organizations participating or collaborating on the Haitian-American COVID-19 Task Force include the Haitian Times, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1199, Evangelical Crusade Church, the Haitian Medical Association Abroad (AMHE), Norad Consultant, Sobola Home Care, International Humanitarian Outreach Ministries, Promoting Health in Haiti, and the Haitian American Psychiatric Association.
“We hope with all those representatives from different organizations, we’ll be able to address the needs of the population,” said Dr. Jean Claude Compas, a retired physician who specialized in family medicine. Compas sits on the coordinating committee of the task force, along with Williams.
Given the spread of misinformation, particularly on the internet, Compas said the greatest need right now is education. But certain community members have additional needs.
Senior citizens, who face greater risk of health complications from coronavirus, are dealing with anxiety and often need help with errands. Those with limited English-language skills might also need a translator to navigate certain websites, so they can receive the necessary services, according to Williams.
One of the primary goals of the task force is to educate people about the virus, which Compas called “highly contagious.” Researchers have found that the virus can last for up to three days on some surfaces and can remain in the air for three hours.
To help with education, Compas has helped assemble a group of physicians and nurses who can answer medical questions related to both physical and mental health. Dr. Mario St. Laurent, secretary of AMHE, will lead this effort. Medical personnel will be on call via an 800 number, and the task force is “trying to recruit retired physicians or retired nurses to come and help,” Compas said.
Those with medical questions related to coronavirus or caring for a loved one during the crisis can call the Haitian-American COVID-19 Task Force hotline at 1-800-865-2950.
Other physicians involved in the task force include Dr. Edouard Hazel, a clinical epidemiologist, and Dr. Lesly Kernisant, who served as an executive director for AdvantageCare Physicians, one of the largest medical practice groups in New York City, until 2015.
The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in New York City surged past 38,000 as of March 30 and is climbing every day. As a result, an ever-increasing number of community members need to know how to care for sick loved ones.
“A lot of people who are in isolation, how do you treat them?” Compas said. “So the need for education is key, but the need to satisfy their needs is also key, because otherwise they will go out. If they are starving, they will go out.”
Volunteers of the task force will also address social issues that have arisen as a consequence of the virus. Working virtually, they can offer reassurance to anyone struggling with anxiety over the virus and the necessary social isolation requirements. The nonprofit Espas Kreyol will provide volunteers to assist those in need of translation services, according to Williams.
Since many Haitian-Americans work in the medical field and live in multi-generational households, volunteers can offer guidance to those concerned about transmitting the disease to family members. Williams also said that domestic violence has risen since the coronavirus crisis began, and volunteers will be sensitive to this new reality. She added that members of the task force are looking to recruit more volunteers, ideally with Creole language skills, to help answer phones.
Given the prohibitions hospitals have placed on visitors, Dr. Lubin said she has noticed the impact of social isolation on mental health and called for people to maintain constant communication with loved ones, if they are quarantined.
“Equally important to the prevention in terms of social distancing, is maintaining a certain level of care and communication among family members,” she said.
To address the needs of senior citizens facing isolation, the task force will work with the City of New York and existing social service organizations to ensure vulnerable members of the community have food access. Many churches, for example, operate food pantries and other distribution initiatives.
“One of the biggest things is going to be food, because a lot of people are not working, they have no income, so they have to be able to eat and drink. So we have to find a way to let people know where the services are,” Compas said.
According to a tracking survey conducted by the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health & Health Policy from March 20-22, 80% of New York City residents have reported a reduced ability to get the necessary food. Nearly a third of respondents reported job loss by someone in their household.
Williams said the Haitian-American COVID-19 Task Force can serve as something of a “buffer” between residents and government services, taking on tasks that government cannot always handle. She said future partnerships with government organizations are a possibility.
The offices of District 45 city Councilmember Farah Louis and state Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte did not return requests for comment on local coronavirus response efforts before the deadline.
As health systems across the country brace for a surge in coronavirus patients, the epicenter of the crisis in the U.S. has been hit particularly hard. New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio has called for an additional 40,000 hospital beds to increase the city’s capacity and announced March 29 that the city had just one week of critical medical supplies to serve any New Yorker that gets sick.
Physicians, Compas said, are overworked and have complained about shortages of ventilators and testing equipment. Given these realities, the task force has a crucial role in decreasing the strain on the city’s hospitals.
“This is all part of flattening the curve. Basically to try to decrease the volume of people, the surge of sick patients that basically are going to overflood the medical system,” Compas added.