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Racism and COVID-19 in Tallahassee

Commentary by Edward Holifield |
April 16, 2020
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Tallahassee, FL - Faulkner warned us that the past is not dead; it is not even past. In 1948 Laurie Dozier Sr., with a group of white male friends, started Tallahassee Memorial Hospital (TMH). No Blacks were allowed even though Blacks paid a utilities tax that funded the hospital. Some Blacks who were denied admission died as a consequence.

Now we have COVID-19. Blacks will die disproportionately from this too. TMH requires those tested at the Northwood drive-through testing facility to have a doctor's prescription. TMH knows that poor people who are disproportionately Black often have neither a doctor nor health insurance.

Mark O'Bryant, the Tallahassee Memorial Hospital CEO, says that these people should go to Bond, knowing that Bond is horribly underfunded. Of the three testing sites established by TMH, none is in Frenchtown, South City, or in any neighborhood in the Black community. This despite the fact that it is the Black population that suffers the most mortality from the ravages of this virus.

O'Bryant departed from the truth when he said that Black people could simply go to a doctor in the TMH residency program if they needed a doctor. Really? The TMH Family Practice program limits both the uninsured patients and the patients on Medicaid in its residency program. This despite the fact that TMH enjoys a dollar-a-year lease agreement with the city of Tallahassee that allows TMH to control more than a billion dollars’ worth of assets owned by the city. These include the buildings and the land that TMH sits on.

It’s a great business model if you can get it. Meanwhile O'Bryant is paid more than $1 million a year for a hospital that is rated "D" for patient safety. All this while paying no taxes on this nonprofit institution.

There were more than 47,000 people in Leon County with no health insurance the last time I checked. A sales tax initiative back in 2006 would have produced $18 million a year to support the uninsured. Bryan Desloge and his political opponent Will Messer spent $600,000 between them to kill it. The Chamber of Commerce made absolutely sure it would not pass. So did the Northeast Business Association.

Black infant mortality has remained off the charts when compared to whites. Deslodge used the term "million dollar crack babies" when discussing black infant mortality on Gary Yordon's Usual Suspects television show. I was going to give Desloge a pass on that until he failed to publicly denounce the racism and xenophobia of his fellow Republican Donald Trump.

As Black people, we need to know that we are on our own. Dr. Andrea Friall, a Black vice president at TMH, states that if the hospital becomes overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients, the hospital will use a triage model "that would take into consideration the best chances of surviving."

In Chicago, where 30% of the population is Black, 70% of the deaths from COVID-19 are Black.

In Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, where 27% of the population is black, 81% of the deaths from COVID-19 are Black.

Because Blacks have a disproportionate amount of chronic illness - including asthma, hypertension and diabetes - they will be out of luck. All other things being equal, the last remaining ventilator will go to a white person who enjoys all the privileges, including health care, that a white skin has to offer.

Edward Holifield, M.D. is an activist and physician from Tallahassee, Florida. He is a longtime advocate for people of color in the Tallahassee area, particularly in the fight against Black infant mortality and racial discrimination in health care. He can be reached at [email protected]