The Delta Grassroots Caucus (DGC) is a broad coalition of grassroots leaders in the eight-state Delta region. DGC is also a founding partner of the Economic Equality Caucus,
which advocates for economic equality across the USA.

Arkansas Municipal League magazine article on May 13 Delta Zoom Conference, in June, 2021 Issue

Posted on June 10, 2021 at 11:26 AM

We are sending along this article on the May 13, 2021 Delta Zoom Conference, which appeared in the June, 2021 issue of City & Town, the official monthly magazine of the Arkansas Municipal League.

Impacts of pandemic focus of Delta Caucus conference

By Andrew Morgan, League staff

Local elected officials, nonprofits and other community leaders from across the eight-state Delta region gathered virtually on May 13 for the annual spring regional conference of the Mississippi Delta Grassroots Caucus. The caucus has traditionally held two large meetings each year, one in Little Rock and one in Washington, D.C., but like most organizations it has moved its events online during the COVID-19 pandemic. The health and economic impacts of the pandemic on historically underserved Delta communities dominated the conference agenda, with several Arkansas representatives participating in the meeting.

Based in West Memphis, the East Arkansas Family Health Center is a community-based nonprofit that, over the course of 2020, served more than 17,000 area patients, providing a variety of health care services at its 12 sites, Dr. Susan Ward, the center’s CEO, said. In order to continue to serve the community throughout the pandemic, the center had to first struggle with its own financial stability, and tough decisions had to be made, she said.

“There was a rapid decline in productivity—40 to 50 percent. We were in jeopardy of site closures. We had to close down our dental department, per state mandate.” Amid these operational challenges, the center continues to respond to the pandemic.

“We’ve had to be nimble, quick and pivot on a moment’s notice. Our first patient case was on March 25, 2020, and our first employee case was on April 10, 2020,” Ward said. It left them scrambling to come up with a plan of action that included securing their facilities, acquiring personal protective equipment, launching tele-health options for patients and more. Expanding tele-health has presented some unique challenges for the organization, including ensuring that their IT capabilities are robust and that staff are properly trained. It has also been a challenge for patients, Ward said, many of whom have inadequate internet and mobile phone service and need education about the new form of care delivery if they do have access.

Educational outreach has been a priority of the center throughout the pandemic, Ward said, and that continues as the vaccines have become widely available. It’s become especially important to combat the myths and misinformation about the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines, she said. “Why should I vaccinate?” Ward asked. “Because COVID is still here. It is true that cases have come down, but they plateaued at a high level. There’s still pockets of disease cropping up across the nation, particularly because of the mutant strains from the U.K. and now India that have proven to be in the United States and will prove to be problematic unless we out-vaccinate the virus.”

As of early May, 34 percent of Arkansans had received at least one vaccine dose. Gov. Asa Hutchinson has challenged the state to achieve a 50-percent vaccination rate by August, but convincing the public to take advantage of the now widely-available vaccines remains a challenge, Ward said. To reach that goal in Crittenden County will take nearly 30 percent of the population receiving the vaccine in the next two months, she said.

“We know that we’re going to have to pivot and go to where folks are, perhaps even go to truck stops and gas stations, wherever we can get people to take these vaccines,” Ward said. COVID remains the third leading cause of death in the country behind heart disease and cancer, she said. “I would dare say that if we had a vaccine for heart disease and cancer that many of us would take it.”

The Delta’s local elected officials like Dumas Mayor Flora Simon have been on the front lines the past year, taking steps to educate and protect their communities. While the Desha County city has experienced negative effects of the pandemic, including having one of the very first recorded cases in Arkansas, cases did not skyrocket locally, she told conference participants. She credited the community’s efforts to follow safety best practices and a strong regional response. “I applaud everyone in the area for taking those precautions,” Simon said.

From the beginning of the crisis, the mayors and other community leaders met regularly to coordinate a region-wide response, which included working with local media and online outlets to educate the public with the most up-to-date information, she said. “Lucky enough, I believe it actually worked,” Simon said. “There’s always people that didn’t believe they needed to follow the rules, but overall they did.” Dumas has felt some of the negative economic impacts of the pandemic, both in the business community and the city itself, the mayor said. Some businesses were able to remain open by shifting to drive-thru and curbside service. Some were forced to shut their doors, at least until some of the statewide restrictions were lifted.

About a dozen Dumas businesses were able to take advantage of grants through the Economic Development Commission to help them weather the shutdown period, Simon said. For the city, the only direct economic impact was felt with the closure of the community center, which meant a loss of that funding source, Simon said.

The city has been able to keep all of its staff employed throughout the pandemic, although two employees were reduced to part-time hours. Overall, in Dumas and the Delta area, “We fared well,” Simon said. “We all worked together to do those things we needed to do.”

One of the lower Delta’s larger communities, Greenville, Mississippi, along with the state of Mississippi as a whole, has felt the effects of the pandemic more acutely, Greenville Mayor Errick Simmons said. “COVID-19 has swept through our state in ways that have disproportionately affected Greenville and much of the Delta due to the high poverty rate and vulnerable populations we have,” he said.

“Mississippi is the second worst performing state in the nation for vaccine distribution with only 25.5 percent fully vaccinated compared to 35.5 percent in the United States.” Communities in the Delta have done a pretty good job utilizing mobile vaccine distribution and other outreach efforts, but a lack of large chain pharmacies and other broad-scale distribution infrastructure has hampered their efforts, he said. Vaccine hesitancy, particularly among white males in the state, also contributes to the low vaccination rate, Simmons said.

Disasters, whether they are public health emergencies like the coronavirus pandemic or natural disasters like flood events or hurricanes, hit underserved areas like the Delta region harder, Simmons said. He is part of the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative, a group of 100 mayors from 10 states representing communities adjacent to the river from Minnesota to Louisiana and who are dedicated to measuring the impact of the challenges the region has faced the past several decades and developing policy that meets the scale of those challenges. “

The Mississippi River corridor has sustained $210 billion in actual losses due to disasters since 2005,” Simmons said. “Events that used to occur once every 25 or 30 years are now hitting us every couple of years.” He cited the May 2019 flood along the Mississippi and Arkansas rivers, which resulted in 270 consecutive days of flooding in Greenville and cost over $6 billion in losses locally and $20 billion across the entire basin.

“We’re now losing as much as eight percent of our annual economy to disaster impacts,” Simmons said. “Couple this with a 30-percent poverty rate throughout the Delta and you have an acute situation.” These are the kinds of factors that Washington must take into account as the Biden Administration and Congress debate the size and focus of the infrastructure legislation now being considered. “We have to begin to think about the least of us in this infrastructure package, and we hope the president will do that,” Simmons said.