JACKSON, Miss. — Dr. Janice Bacon was exactly the person Kay McField hoped to talk to when she found herself spending most of her days in bed, feeling too depressed to get up as the coronavirus pandemic threatened those around her.
As she watched those closest to her test positive for the virus — a goddaughter and her uncle, whom she cares for, among them — McField said she was terrified that she or her daughter, who both suffer from autoimmune diseases, would fall ill. When she wasn’t in bed, the 51-year-old single mother was cleaning her house compulsively.
“It was just this constant panic,” she said, her arms pressed to her chest. “I wanted to talk to someone I knew was going to listen, who I could trust.”
A Black primary care physician practicing in Mississippi for nearly four decades, Bacon works at an all-African American-run trio of community health centers in Hinds County, where the population is overwhelmingly Black — and where the most coronavirus cases have been reported in the state.
Most of the families that Bacon and the more than 50 other doctors, nurses and social workers serve are African American, low-income and living with health conditions like heart disease, diabetes and asthma that are more common among Black Americans. Even before the coronavirus, many were dealing with depression and anxiety, Bacon said.
During the pandemic, those problems have been exacerbated. Many clinic patients are essential workers expected to work in-person even as coronavirus cases have skyrocketed in Mississippi. While testing is free for community health center patients, delays are a major issue, Bacon said, with some families waiting up to two weeks for results.
Bacon said she has seen people scrape together $187 to pay for a rapid test at other clinics that don’t accept Medicaid, in hopes of returning to work faster and not losing their jobs.
“There’s this feeling of, ‘I just can’t handle it all,’” Bacon said. “We are seeing serious mental health consequences.”
Meanwhile, families are struggling to find child care and put food on the table. Two of the largest school districts in the area decided to start virtually, creating more barriers for families that don’t have internet access, or if they do, don’t know how to use devices for online learning or can’t afford them.
Research suggests Black patients have better outcomes when treated by Black doctors and nurses. Yet, only 5% of doctors nationwide are Black, and only 2% are Black women, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.
Clinic staff members say they see their role as more than treating their patients’ physical health. They work with food banks, churches and other social services to make sure people have access to food and clean drinking water while in isolation, as well as transportation when they can venture out again.
The pandemic has made running some of the center’s normal programming challenging. Nutrition sessions for preteens and their parents at risk for obesity were halted in person. Respite care for parents of children with significant health conditions — something Bacon knows is desperately needed right now — has been on pause until providers find a safe way to visit patients’ homes.
Clinician and social worker Lisa Williams said that although the pandemic has made a lot of the problems that patients deal with worse, they aren’t anything new.
“People have been struggling for a long, long time,” she said.