From its antebellum robbing of black graves for research at the Medical College of Virginia to its 20th century study of untreated syphilis in black males at Tuskegee Institute, the medical profession earned African American mistrust.

That mistrust, however, has not benefited black folks. Lingering paranoia — combined with other health-sapping legacies of racism — can be deadly. Sixteen of the 18 people confirmed to have died of COVID-19 in Richmond are African American.

Dr. Robert Winn, the new director of the VCU Massey Cancer Center, is trying to address the disproportionate toll of the coronavirus in the African American community through a nascent partnership with the area’s black clergy. This past month, he began hosting weekly conference calls, dubbed Facts and Faith, to provide pastors with information to protect themselves and their congregations.

There’s a logic to this approach. Black folks might have trust issues with the medical profession, but they retain faith in their pastors.

Winn, as a black man in the groundbreaking role as head of a designated U.S. cancer center, is uniquely equipped to provide crucial data, build trust and beat back misinformation.

Early on, black folks were fed the bogus idea that our melanin shielded us from COVID-19.

“There’s now this new rumor around about ‘don’t go to testing sites,’” Winn said during a recent interview. “Because if you go to testing sites, ‘They’re trying to do a Tuskegee 2.0 on you, and give you the virus.’ ... This is craziness, right?”

Indeed. If President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence are getting regular testing, despite the relative scarcity to the masses, we should be scrambling toward testing.

Winn, former director of the University of Illinois Cancer Center, is a pulmonologist and an expert in lung cancer and health disparities. During his four months in Richmond, he has sought to build relationships like he did in Chicago, where he participated in a show called “Doctor in the House” on African American talk radio.

Rudene Mercer Haynes, a partner with the Hunton Andrews Kurth law firm, met Winn through a colleague and connected him with the Rev. F. Todd Gray of Fifth Street Baptist Church. Winn embraced the idea of providing regular updates to the black faith community.

Bishop Gerald Glenn of New Deliverance Evangelistic Church in Chesterfield County recently had died of COVID-19. His death heightened pastor awareness and “strengthened our resolve to do the right thing,” said Pastor Michael Jones of Village of Faith.

Pastors are in no undue rush to reopen their sanctuaries, said Jones, a member of Richmond City Council. “A part of being a shepherd is protecting the flock.”

Having Winn as a resource is a game-changer, he said.

“I’m able to go on my broadcast on Sunday, and even during the week, and we’re able to kick facts and I know we’re helping our individuals.”

Each Friday at 3 p.m., Winn, pastors and other individuals, such as broadcast journalist Clovia “Miss Community” Lawrence, participate in the conference call. Each talk begins with a prayer.

Winn updates the group on the number of infections, hospitalizations, and the virus surge and projected peak in Virginia. They talk about the importance of masks and hand-washing. As Virginia moves toward lifting its distancing restrictions, they’ve pivoted toward issues such as church cleaning, how many congregants should attend a service and what to do about choirs.

“Like coughing, singing, even making a joyful noise, actually takes the respiratory singlets and can spread those,” Winn said.

They speak of the contributing factors that make the black community more vulnerable to COVID-19 — the role of racism in African American rates of diabetes, hypertension and other ailments; inadequate health care; densely populated living spaces; and the relative lack of ability to work from home.

Winn says at least 80% of individuals with a college education do have the flexibility to shelter in place. An emerging goal of the discussions, he adds, is how to be nimble and quick in using data to target at-risk populations in heading off health problems. “He’s been so open,” Haynes said of Winn. “I think that really helps build trust.”

The coronavirus might go away, but the underlying issues that make the black community especially vulnerable remain in need of addressing.

“So yeah, I want this to continue,” Jones said. “I can’t wait for the opportunity to meet Dr. Winn face to face — or at least, 6 feet away.”

Winn is willing to keep it going as long as there’s interest. The need will remain.

Black clergy summoned our faith to march us toward equal rights. They should be at the forefront of a social justice movement toward equal health.

mwilliams@timesdispatch.com(804) 649-6815

Twitter: @RTDMPW

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