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Top Ohio Democrat Disappointed By State's Response To COVID-19 Disparities

Ohio House Minority Leader Emilia Sykes (D-Akron)
Paul Vernon
Associated Press
Ohio House Minority Leader Emilia Sykes (D-Akron)

The Democratic leader of the Ohio House, state Rep. Emilia Sykes (D-Akron), says the state has not done enough to address the disproportionate effect COVID-19 is having on black Ohioans.

Sykes says concerns arose early about the impact of the coronavirus on minority communities.

"As we started ringing the bell and talking to the governor about, what are the health disparities? You have to start collecting this information, you have to understand it, so we can start targeting resources," Sykes said.

Sykes says 14% of Ohio's population is made up of black residents, but black Ohioans represent 17% of all COVID-19 deaths in the state. When it comes to cases and hospitalizations, the numbers are double: black Ohioans account for 26% of COVID-19 cases and 30% of hospitalizations.

"That is a huge red flag that there is something that needs to be addressed," Sykes said.

She said state leaders have been slow to understand the issue and take it seriously.

"What we're seeing is testing happening not well in Ohio generally, but even worse in black communities, where we're seeing the need is most," she said.

Without knowing who is infected, Sykes says stopping the spread is nearly impossible.

"And then it perpetuates these health disparities," she continued. "Health disparities are very predictable and they are preventable, but unfortunately, if you don’t act quickly enough you can’t prevent them."

Sykes says she was initially excited about Gov. Mike DeWine's announcement of a Minority Strike Force, formed to address these concerns.

"But as the group has gone on, we've seen stagnation and, unfortunately, not enough being done to address these issues," Sykes said. "Now it is a question of whether people actually do care about every single life, or are there certain lives that are more important?"

As the state reopens with no plan to address these disparities, Sykes says she's heard concerns grow.

"That's something else I've heard from my constituents. Many who are on the front lines. These essential workers tend to be from black communities, and now we are opening without a plan for them, and it hurts," she said. "It is emotional, and it feels like we're being betrayed; that we had a plan that these lives are going to be protected, and now they're not."

At his news briefing last Thursday, Gov. Mike DeWine was asked about the progress of the minority group, and indicated he would address that early this week.

Sykes says the state needs to require – not just recommend – that data be reported, to eliminate gaps. That will allow testing and resources be prioritized for the most affected communities.

"We rallied around staying at home to protect our grandparents, our older aunts and uncles, our older neighbors and friends," Sykes noted. "It was OK because we knew they were going to be more vulnerable to this."

Even though officials know black residents are also more vulnerable, Sykes says "the ability and the willingness to proactively act and target resources has shrunk."

"It takes a level of leadership to say, 'We're going to do this, it is the right thing to do, it is the empirically scientific, responsible thing to do,'" Sykes said. "And it will save taxpayers' dollars.'"

A Northeast Ohio native, Sarah Taylor graduated from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio where she worked at her first NPR station, WMUB. She began her professional career at WCKY-AM in Cincinnati and spent two decades in television news, the bulk of them at WKBN in Youngstown (as Sarah Eisler). For the past three years, Sarah has taught a variety of courses in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Kent State, where she is also pursuing a Master’s degree. Sarah and her husband Scott, have two children. They live in Tallmadge.