Health Department Said it Plans to Work With NAACP; Group’s President Wants to Know When

This article first appeared in The Pilot on July 9, 2020.

On July 1, the director of the Moore County Health Department said his agency would be working with the local chapter of the NAACP to address the spread of COVID-19 in marginalized communities.

O’Linda Watkins, president of the Moore County NAACP, is still waiting for that to happen.

“I haven’t heard a thing,” Watkins said in a phone interview on Thursday evening, eight days after the health director announced the department’s plan to collaborate with the organization. “Everybody seems to be taking their time.”

Robert Wittmann, director of the Moore County Health Department, last communicated with the chapter during a teleconference over a month ago. He told the group then that the county’s Black community was a “high-risk population” for COVID-19.

“There’s an inordinate amount of underlying health problems with the African American population,” Wittmann said at the time.

Citing the 2019 Community Health Assessment for Moore County, he added that the “main areas affecting the health of our citizens” were obesity and behavioral health. The disparity in these areas, Wittmann said, was “much higher for the Black population than the regular population.”

O’Linda Watkins, president of the Moore County NAACP. (Photograph by Jaymie Baxley/The Pilot)

Since that meeting on May 28, data from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services has consistently shown that people of color in Moore County are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus. NCDHHS on Thursday reported that African American residents, despite making up 12 percent of the county’s total population, accounted for 14 percent of infections and 36 percent of deaths.

These figures are based on information reported to NCDHHS, which on Thursday said it was missing race data for 216 of the county’s 594 reported cases.

Miriam King of the Moore County Health Department played down the uneven toll on communities of color during a Facebook Live broadcast last week.

“As far as our county is concerned right now, we are below that radar,” she said. “For those contracting COVID-19, for those testing positive, for those dying from COVID-19, right now our Black community is not adversely affected by these numbers.”

Earlier in the broadcast, King said the Health Department is “working with our Moore County NAACP.”

“We are speaking with representatives and we’re asking and formulating ideas, we’re formulating processes — anything that we can do to help our marginalized communities.”

Wittmann later interjected off-camera.

“Our next project, which will be headed up by Matt Garner, who is the incident commander, is going to be some drive-thru testing,” he said. “And we’ll be getting back in touch with the local president of our NAACP and also the chair of their health committee to devise strategies to get the word out to these at-risk communities in order to be able to direct them into our drive-thru testing.”

But Watkins has yet to hear from Wittmann, Garner or King, and she disputed King’s claim that the Health Department is actively working with the chapter.

“She made the statement and yet still I have not heard from them,” Watkins said. “I feel that someone from the Health Department could have at least sent us an email or some kind of follow-up to set up a time to talk after publicly saying they’re working with us.”

Watkins also took exception with Wittmann’s use of the word “project.”

“I still don’t get what he meant by that,” she said. “How is getting in touch with us a project? That shouldn’t take a week to do.”

In a previous interview with The Pilot, Watkins said the Moore County NAACP hopes to see free coronavirus testing offered in historically Black communities like West Southern Pines and in Robbins, where about half the population is Hispanic. She said the chapter would like to be involved with contact tracing and educational outreach in marginalized communities.

“We still want to work with the Health Department to make sure the community gets what it needs,” Watkins said.

In a phone interview on Friday, Garner said the department still plans on collaborating with the chapter in “the very near future.”

“We’re still working internally to figure out what our capabilities are as far as what we can offer in terms of staff,” he said. “Once we firm that up, we’re going to reach out to them and work with them.”

Garner added: “We’d like to work with them about possibly doing some outreach with some of the African American population and getting some testing sites open up and promoting them.”

The Health Department, Garner said, is looking at ways to offer testing in places like West Southern Pines and the Needmoore community in Carthage.

Catie Armstrong, spokesperson for NCDHHS, on Thursday said the state plans to make free testing more readily available for people of color in the area.

“As many as 300 free testing sites will be deployed throughout July to underserved communities, providing testing access for 2.2 million African American, LatinX/Hispanic and American Indian individuals,” Armstrong wrote in an email to The Pilot. “The initiative will increase testing capacity in more than 100 ZIP codes, including several across Moore County.”

She did not specify which local ZIP codes are included in the initiative.