Amid Covid-19 outbreak, Black clergy push for testing site in west Charlotte

Ricky A. Woods, senior minister at First Baptist Church-West, says residents who face the greatest health challenges should have a testing site nearby.

For years, the Rev. Ricky A. Woods has been a vocal advocate for the health and economic inclusion of Charlotte’s forgotten people.

He was one of 20 people tapped in 2016 to form the Leading on Opportunity task force, which sought to address Mecklenburg County’s economic mobility challenges. In recent weeks, Woods has focused his aim on another pressing concern: convincing county leaders and the local healthcare community to open a Covid-19 testing site on Charlotte’s west side.

With the pandemic taking a weighted toll on the county’s Black population, Woods says a westside site is needed.

“First of all, it’s important because people on the west side often cannot follow the stay-at-home order,” he told QCity Metro. “They are in the fast-food jobs. They are in the custodial cleaning jobs at the hospitals. They are cleaning the buses. They are doing those kinds of things that continue to expose them to risks in ways in which a number of their counterparts are not.”

Woods also points to the many health-related challenges that Black people face — the so-called “social determinants” that make them especially vulnerable to poor medical outcomes when infected by the novel coronavirus, which causes Covid-19.

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Woods has offered the parking lot of First Baptist Church-West, where he serves as senior minister, as a potential location for a drive-thru testing site. On Wednesday, Mecklenburg’s public health director, Gibbie Harris, said the county is talking with the region’s two largest healthcare providers — Atrium Health and Novant Health — about the feasibility of a westside testing site.

In the Q&A below, Woods talks about Covid-19 and his push for a westside site:

Q. On Wednesday, you and the Rev. Jordan Boyd, pastor of Rockwell AME Zion Church, delivered a letter to county Manager Dena Diorio from local ministers, again requesting a westside testing site. How many ministers did that letter represent?

The letter reflects in excess of 100 different clergy within the Village HeartBEAT network alone. There are about 60 to 65 churches that participate [in Village HeartBEAT]. But beyond that group, it also represents the United Missionary Baptist Association where I serve as vice moderator. It represents the A.M.E. Zion denomination, where Pastor Boyd is a leader and others are members of Village HeartBEAT. Also, we have the state president for the Church of God in the person of Dr. Cornelius Atkinson.

Q. County officials say the Covid-19 curve now appears to be flattening, indicating that the infection rate may be slowing. Isn’t it too late to ramp up testing?

No, I don’t think so, because the factors that impact minority communities on the west side haven’t changed. The curve is flattening overall because of the stay-at-home order and the social distancing. The persons who work in drive-thru windows in fast-food places can’t practice social distancing. The persons who are cleaning the hospital rooms…distancing is not going to help them in terms of their risk and their exposure.

Q. What grade would you give local officials in their handling of this outbreak?

I would give them a D-. We knew this was coming. We have spent a good bit of time talking about trying to address some of the inequities within the community, addressing social determinants relative to health. And so we’ve had enough time to start trying to address this situation to where it would not have the negative impact that it has had.

Q. How confident are you that the west side will get a testing site?

I would like to feel confident, but at this point, I don’t know. I think it is difficult for the county to explain to the community why they have chosen not to do so when there have been other mobile testing sites throughout the community.

Q. The county has announced a Covid-19 outreach effort that will include Black communities. Do you have details about how it will work or what the messaging will be?

We have raised questions about how that would move forward. One of the things they mentioned is about using radio personalities and urban radio stations as a means of providing that message. And the other part is simply providing some literature. I’m not certain what that literature is at this moment.

Q. What would you like to see the county do that it’s not doing, aside from a mobile testing site somewhere in west Charlotte?

I would like to see the county develop a plan of action to mitigate the spread of this virus in ways in which it is disproportionately impacting minority communities. We’re seeing it very clearly within the African-American community. My suspicions are that those numbers will continue to rise within the Hispanic community as well. And although we are not hearing much talk about that, the largest-single rise in percentage in the recent week has been within the Hispanic community.

Q. Has your congregation been touched by coronavirus or Covid?

It has. We have a member who contracted the virus, and we have parishioners who have family members in New York and other places in the country that are currently impacted by the virus. Also, one of the most important things that the church does is the ritual of the funeral service in support of families when they lose a loved one. The virus has made us calibrate how we do that — limiting the number of people who can be in the facility, and even then having them sit six feet apart, maintaining social distancing. That’s extremely humbling for a family that is already experiencing grief, to not be able to sit beside one another, hold one another and comfort one another.  

Q. Is there anything else you’d like to say?

I think it’s important that, as a community and as individuals, that we do a couple of things. One, that we balance personal liberties and freedoms against our responsibilities as citizens. This is not a time for us to be thumping our chests about our privileges and rights. This is a time when we need to balance that against what works in the best interests of the greater good, even if it inconveniences me. This is not a time for self-expression.

Q. What’s going to be your Easter message?

Hope. No matter how dark things may look, what Easter tells us is that there is always hope. The women made their way toward the tomb with plans to anoint a dead body, but they arrive to discover that he is not there. He’s risen.


Want to hear more from Rev. Woods?

Virtual panel discussion coming Tuesday: As part of the Gantt Center’s Initiative for Equity + Innovation — a critical platform to bring about social change — Glenn Burkins, Founder & Publisher of QCitymetro, will lead a virtual panel discussion about the underlying causes of this disparity and the resources required to improve the health outcomes within communities of color. Rev. Woods will join Mecklenburg County Manager Diorio and Dr. Jerome Williams, Jr., Senior Vice President, Consumer Engagement at Novant Health on the panel. Click here for more details and to register.