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Howard University President Dr. Wayne Frederick On COVID-19 Health Disparities


How the government responds to the coronavirus will be especially crucial for communities of color, which have been hit especially hard by this pandemic. This week, lawmakers introduced a bill that would require the collection and publication of racial and socioeconomic data to address these disparities. Earlier today, we spoke with Dr. Wayne Frederick about why this matters. He is the president of Howard University here in Washington, D.C. It's one of the nation's oldest and largest historically black universities or HBCUs. And he continues to practice medicine as a cancer surgeon. He listed steps that he said the government and medical institutions can take to better address the impact of the pandemic.

WAYNE FREDERICK: I think there are three things that the government can do. The first is as part of another stimulus package is to really stand up and empower community partnerships in those most vulnerable populations. So, for instance, there's a lot of focus right now in nursing homes and potentially looking at how to engage nursing home and nursing home staffs. I think empowering and partnering with community leaders, such as pastors and teachers, trusted leaders in the community, where you can get them to be taking a message out to the community.

And the last is looking at testing through a different lens. I think we need to take testing to those communities, so mobile testing in neighborhoods may be one way to do it. I think a lot of these testing sites that have been set up at drive-throughs for people who don't have cars. And so that is not a practical solution as opposed to get a few mobile vans that can actually take the testing into the community, may be more effective in getting a larger number of people tested over a shorter period of time.

MARTIN: I did want to ask about the CARES Act. The Trump administration is touting its support for historically black colleges and universities through the CARES Act. Do you happen to know how much or whether Howard will be receiving some relief from that? And what do you plan to do with that?

FREDERICK: Yeah. So Howard will receive some relief. We don't have an exact amount. I do know that 50% of some of the monies that we will get will go directly to students. The rest of the funds we will get we will use to close the deficit gap that we will experience. And the CARES Act will certainly help us close some of that gap. We also are doing some cost-reduction things on the nonpersonnel side to try to close the rest of that gap as well.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you about that. Like, what was that like to shut the campus down?

FREDERICK: Yeah, it was very difficult, a very difficult decision to make. As a matter of fact, I would say one aspect of it that I think in retrospect is the psychological impact. It's a big upheaval to do that, and so we've stood up a lot of online counseling services, et cetera. And it's very unusual if not eerie to go to campus as I do daily. It's very unusual to walk across campus on an April spring day and not see a single person, you know, in that space. And so that's unusual.

At the same time, Howard is an unusual place because we own our own hospital. You go down to the hospital. And a beehive of activity is also very unusual with a tent outside for triage. We're adding beds per the mayor's request. And so it's almost a tale of two stories, you know, on that one historic campus.

MARTIN: What's been the hardest part of all this for you?

FREDERICK: The hardest part of it for me has been the juxtaposition of the loss of life en masse, which can sometimes submerge the individual stories. When people start talking about 30-something thousand lives lost in one country, I think, sometimes, there could be a callousness to lose that. And with all our own individual pain, I think, sometimes, we could lose the fact that so many people are losing their lives. And there's so many stories to be told there. There's so much suffering. That worries me that we don't lose that perspective.

MARTIN: And, also, as a university president, I think that there - you know. Howard, of course, like so many of the HBCUs, is known for - as an engine of social mobility. I mean, there are many, many people who have - attending Howard who are the first in their families to achieve a university degree. And it must be painful to have sent these students home without having had the opportunity to celebrate that. I mean, graduation's canceled, so many of these students will not have had the opportunity to celebrate this achievement. And many of them are the first in their families to do so. That has to be hard.

FREDERICK: Yeah, it's - that's very difficult. I'm a triple alumnus of Howard. The first - at my first graduation, my grandmother - it was the first time that she got on a plane ever to come to this country to celebrate my graduation, and I always remember that. It's always a very touching and emotional memory. And I think of the number of grandparents in particular who would've grown up in this country at a different period of time.

And that graduation often for them is almost a coming together of everything that they have poured into, making sure that generations beyond them would have a different experience. And so that celebration - while we focus on the student, I often focus on the families because I can see, especially in grandparents' eyes, what they have experienced and felt and the fact that it all gets poured into this one young person. And so to not have that event as it were in its usual tradition is heart-wrenching to be quite honest, and it's impossible to recreate as well.

MARTIN: Well, that was Dr. Wayne Frederick. He is the president of Howard University in Washington, D.C., and he continues to practice as a cancer surgeon. Dr. Frederick, thank you so much for talking to us. I hope we'll talk again in a better - in better times.

FREDERICK: Sure. Thank you very much, appreciate all that you're doing as well to get information to everyone. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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