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COVID-19 pandemic hit this East Side Cleveland neighborhood especially hard, research shows

In Cleveland's Hough neighborhood, a man works on his lawn next to a Cuyahoga Land Bank house.
Nick Castele
Ideastream Public Media
People living in Hough have relatively dense housing arrangements, and many people in those situations aren’t able to take steps like social distancing that prevent the spread of disease.

People who lived in the Hough neighborhood, on Cleveland’s East Side, were harder hit by the COVID-19 pandemic than people living in other parts of the state – even other vulnerable parts, according to new research by Ohio State University's College of Public Health.

Researchers combed through data to find a cross-section of communities across the state they believed would have been the most vulnerable during the pandemic — places where people have less access to material resources and others where mostly Black and brown people live, said Ohio State’s Tasleem Padamsee, who co-led the research project called the Hardest Hit Communities.

Among the five most vulnerable communities identified statewide, Hough had the highest death rate from COVID-19 during the first year of the pandemic. When researchers compared the death rate in the Census tract that includes most of Hough to the rest of those in Ohio, Hough ranked sixth – out of about 3,000 Census tracts statewide.

Researchers were not surprised, said Padamsee.

“Anybody who was working in the health equity space could see this coming,” she said. “Anybody thinking about race or social inequality could probably have predicted that this pandemic wasn’t going to hit everybody equally.”

Nearly 90% of people who live in Hough are Black, according to figures from the Center for Community Solutions. The median household income is slightly more than $19,000 and more than 40% of people in the neighborhood live in poverty.

That meant that many people kept going to work when the pandemic hit.

“Their incomes aren’t so high they could just stop getting a paycheck for a year,” Padamsee said. “People need to go to work, and the jobs they need to do are places where it’s hard to protect yourself from a virus that at the time when we had no vaccine.”

But what made residents of Hough vulnerable goes beyond race and income, Padamsee said.

People living in Hough have relatively dense housing arrangements, living in densely packed housing environments with multiple families where multiple people have to go out to school or work and then come back home, said Padamsee. And many people in those situations aren’t able to take steps like social distancing and not sharing a bathroom that prevent the spread of disease.

COVID-19 was "the perfect storm'' for Hough and neighborhoods like it and showed the extent to which racism is a public health threat, said Nicolette Powe, a professor at Youngstown State University’s Bitonte College of Health & Human Services.

“Because all eyes were on COVID, it became obvious very quickly that minorities were not faring well,” she said. “Pre-existing condition, type of employment, access to care, etc.. all made a difference. COVID highlighted something already existing and brought it to the forefront.”

As part of the research, Padamsee and her team are holding in-depth interviews to understand how the pandemic affected people. Researchers hope to complete 150 by the time their project is over.

Preliminary results from the first batch of interviews show that the pandemic was characterized by personal, familial, educational and economic loss, according to Padamsee.

“People have lost a lot of family members — in some places a lot of elders, people who were providing stability to families and childcare,” said Padamsee.

People also reported job loss, children’s loss of learning and having life up-ended as a result of dealing with so much chaos all at once, which has set people back as they tried to cope.

“A lot has to do with things closing, such as after-school programs, elder programs, sports/recreation programs,” she said. “This had a lot of impacts on people’s ability to be healthy in general both physically and mentally because they are not participating in the world how they normally would.”

Padamee said, so far, they have talked to people who are educated and running their own businesses, people who are less educated and under-employed and everyone in between.

“People [in Hough] have had lots to say about how COVID has impacted their lives, their immediate family but also the community around them,” she said.

Researchers hope the program will provide the data and recommendations for how to improve these communities post-pandemic.

“People are still lacking in basic resources in a lot of ways and that’s partially pandemic related but partially people were lacking in resources before that so… this is about the social distribution of wealth and resources in general and the fact that some communities just need investment,” she said. “They need businesses. They need social investment. Community organizations need to be well-supported.”