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Government, Politics & Issues

Reopening Puts Some Metro East Communities More At Risk Of Coronavirus Spread

Medical workers collect a sample from a patient at Mercy Health's drive-through coronavirus test center in Chesterfield in March. St. Louis County Executive Sam Page wants to purchase more tests for the county.
File Photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Medical workers collect a sample from a patient at Mercy Health's drive-thru coronavirus test center in Chesterfield in March. Testing was late to come to black communities in the region, and those disparities continue as the region reopens.

Illinois’ economy is now open after months of strict coronavirus lockdowns, but traditionally underserved, majority black communities in the Metro East are at a disadvantage when it comes to slowing the spread of the virus in the future. 

Residents in and around East St. Louis, Granite City and Madison face barriers to finding protective equipment, like masks, and accessing preventive measures like coronavirus testing.

“We are at a disadvantage of opening and not having the adequate resources that we need compared to other affluent areas,” said East St. Louis Mayor Robert Eastern III. 

The problem around protective equipment is twofold in East St. Louis. There aren’t enough masks for residents in the city, and they’re expensive where they are available, Eastern said. He added community groups and the St. Clair County government have distributed supplies when they come into the area. 

“I have never seen as many non-for-profits in the area be able to distribute food and these things at a time,” Eastern said. “Quite frankly, it’s just not enough.”

That leaves many residents unprepared to be safe at businesses in the area that are now open again, said Wyvetta Granger, executive director of Community Life Line, an outreach organization in East St. Louis that focuses on educational, physical and social needs in the surrounding communities.

“We’re requiring that people wear masks; we’re requiring that people wear all of these different protective measures,” she said. “But we haven’t done anything to ensure the community has access to them.”

Those who do have face coverings — which are often single-use surgical masks — don’t have enough, or don’t know how to use them effectively, Granger said.

“I see a lot of people wear masks, but sometimes they got them tucked under their chin,” she said. “You got the mask on, but if you’re not using it properly, it doesn’t do the benefit.” 

Finding protective equipment and other resources is equally difficult in nearby majority black communities in Madison County, said Yolanda Crochell, the executive director of the Quad Cities Community Development Center, which serves Venice, Madison, Brooklyn and Granite City. 

“There’s only a couple grocery stores in the area in Granite City,” she said. “Food is an issue. There’s an overflex of people that’s taken all the food. When people do get their food stamps or however they receive their money, it’s a lack thereof.”

Beyond personal protective equipment, some residents in these Metro East communities are avoiding getting tested for COVID-19 even when those tests are available, Crochell said.

“The issue is the affordability of the tests. They’re still asking for people’s insurance cards and if they have Medicare,” she said. “There’s a lot of citizens in Madison and Venice that have tried to take the test and been turned away.” 

Residents are deciding between getting tested or buying groceries, Crochell said. She added that free testing should make it easier, but some people in the area will still avoid it.

“People don’t want to get tested because they really don’t want to know,” she said. “They need to know being tested is a preventative measure, not a sentence of death.”

The same trust issues exist in East St. Louis, Granger said.

“There’s a stigma in our community. Even people who have come out and recovered, some were shamed,” she said. “Unless they’re really showing symptoms, a lot of people will never be tested.”

For his part, Eastern is trying to normalize getting tested for COVID-19 by doing it publicly himself and getting other influential East St. Louisans, like Jackie Joyner-Kersee, to do so as well. 

“There is a natural apprehensiveness that keeps people from wanting to be tested as well as just a nervousness of the whole COVID-19 situation itself,” he said. “We’re trying to make it so the average citizen understands it's OK to get tested, and you need to get tested. It’s about putting out more information and being consistent.”

People are weary of the government testing them for coronavirus after years of systemic racism and oppression against black people in the region and country, Eastern said.

That general distrust leads to misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic for some black residents in the area, Granger said.

“Most people in disadvantaged communities have cut the news off,” she said. “The news to us is a trauma.”

Important details about the virus, like having complicating conditions, were obscured by medical language like “comorbidity,” Granger said. 

“That doesn’t reach to our communities,” she said. “The words that we use is, ‘They got high blood pressure; they got diabetes.' Those are the words that connect to our community.” 

There's the same issue with the concept of contact tracing, which has also been used to track sexually transmitted diseases and infections in East St. Louis for decades, Granger said.

“It’s always happened, but it sounds so new, so you have people even afraid to give names of people they’re around,” she said. “We just have to be really careful, because once we scare people with language, it’s hard to unring that bell.” 

Eric Schmid covers the Metro East for St. Louis Public Radio as part of the journalism grant program Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project. Follow Eric on Twitter: @EricDSchmid 

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