DULUTH – To overcome racial disparities in health outcomes during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond, a new local study found better representation and more targeted messaging is needed for Duluth's Black community.

The COVID-19 needs assessment, launched by the Duluth Branch NAACP and several other organizations, "identified not only direct needs around the pandemic but also a broader context of historical mistrust, generational trauma, ongoing systemic racism and a need for more health care professionals from the African Heritage community," according to Health Equity Northland.

Nationally, Black residents have been more likely to contract and die from COVID-19 than whites, and that trend is reflected statewide and locally. In St. Louis County, white residents make up about 92% of the population but 79% of COVID-19 cases to date.

Turning that tide will require building trust and growing community representation in health care, researchers found.

"Hearing from health care providers who were Black, researchers who were Black — that would help with credibility," said Dr. Olihe Okoro, a professor and researcher at the University of Minnesota Duluth's College of Pharmacy who helped lead the needs assessment. "We really need to think long-term about how we can have our faces in these spaces. … A community knows best what works best for a community."

Okoro and Healthy Alliances Matter CEO Janet Kennedy presented their findings over Zoom on Friday to more than 120 people, including community advocates and decisionmakers from local nonprofits and agencies.

Hundreds of Black residents in the area were interviewed, surveyed and assembled in focus groups led by community members in recent months.

One interviewee said their experience of not being heard or feeling mistreated by doctors means "you just stop going."

"I've heard that over and over again — historical distrust," Okoro said. "When your current experience aligns with that, it becomes a problem."

While the vast majority of survey respondents said they were following mask mandates and social distancing guidelines, about a quarter of local residents of African heritage in the study said they would not get the COVID-19 vaccine.

"Our bodies have been used and abused, and that's why we have so much distrust," said Dr. Verna Thornton, an OB-GYN at Community Memorial Hospital in Cloquet.

The recent Mask Up/Back Up/Vax Up campaign was pointed to as a successful initiative that reached people across platforms and generations to help answer one of the key questions facing the community, Okoro said: "If I want valid information that I can trust and I know where it is coming from, where is that?"

Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496