Persona: Community Crusader

Dr. Thomas LaVeist
Persona

According to the Louisiana Department of Health, more than 50 percent of COVID-19 deaths in the state have been African Americans. Dr. Thomas LaVeist, dean of Tulane’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, and the first African American to head that department, is leading the charge of educating the community about the effects of COVID-19. As co-chair of the Louisiana COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force, LaVeist recently helped launch and direct “The Skin You’re In: Coronavirus and Black America,” a campaign to raise awareness.

Q: What is the purpose of ” The Skin You’re In” campaign?

“The Skin You’re In” is a multimedia project that aims to inspire and educate people about racial disparities in health. The project includes a documentary film series, a book and the online informational web portal. The project was started before the COVID-19 pandemic so it covers all health issues. However, when the pandemic hit, and we learned that African Americans were disproportionately affected, we have be focusing more on COVID-19.

Q: What are some of the most common myths that you have heard regarding COVID-19 and its impact on the community and specifically the African American community in New Orleans?

Black people can’t get COVID. Masks don’t work; Masks make you sick.COVID only severely affects the elderly and immunocompromised.

Q: How have you reached people to teach them facts and information about the current crisis?

The campaign reaches the public through news interviews on local stations, public webinars, social media, direct contact with local organizations (churches, non-profits, schools). We also conduct community outreach through tabling at local events such as the recent Juneteenth rallies and marches.

Q: What is the inspiration to provide a documentary and a book companion to the social media campaign?

[It] grew from a desire to reach all groups. This information can be hard to digest. Presenting it in various formats allows for increased opportunities to reach those of all learning styles. The goal here is to make sure it is accessible to everyone. Through a documentary and book no one is left out. Additionally, something about a visual allows the viewer to connect to real stories in a more tangible way.

Q: Who or what inspired you to get involved in public health?

When I was a graduate student, I discovered that African Americans had the worst health profile of any American ethnic group. I was surprised by this revelation and became fascinated about why that would be. After completing my PhD, I decided to do a two-year fellowship in public health with the goal of learning why it was that African Americans live sicker and die younger than other groups. What I learned during that fellowship is that the field of public health really didn’t have the answers and – worst yet – there were few people in public health or medicine who were working on finding the answer. So, I decided I would devote my career to trying to find it.

Q: What are some of the greatest healthcare inequalities that the African American community is facing in New Orleans?

Similar to other metropolitan cities, African Americans in New Orleans have been largely segregated into communities with fewer government services, greater exposure to health risks and less availability of resources that are necessary for a healthy life. For example, lack of healthcare access, food deserts, poverty, greater exposure to environmental health hazards, substandard housing, underperforming public schools, communities with greater exposure to violence, overaggressive policing and mass incarceration. As a result, African Americans in New Orleans possess higher rates of chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, and asthma. Disparities in health for African Americans have been further exacerbated during COVID-19, hence the importance of a campaign like “The Skin You’re In.”

Q: Have you had any good news since the campaign launched?

Since the campaign’s launch we have received an increased interest for collaboration from community organizations. This is particularly important to us because we understand the importance of working with the community to ensure effective implementation takes place. All in all, we really want to be a part of ensuring African Americans in New Orleans understand the importance of practicing preventative measures to keep themselves safe during this pandemic.

Q: What are the next steps to fight healthcare inequality in New Orleans?

Research and data inform effective policy change. This is crucial to increasing health equity anywhere. In New Orleans specifically, there is a lot of work to be done but beginning with increasing awareness of these health inequalities, improving patient relationships with providers, and access to health services are great places to start.