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Tombstone Memorials: COVID-19 Grant Announced For Underserved Miami-Dade Communities

Liberty City park2.jpg
Verónica Zaragovia
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Dr. Inaki Bent of Jackson Health System on Tuesday speaks at Simonhoff Park in Liberty City during an event organized by U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, far right. He was joined by Joanna Moore, who lost her mother to COVID-19 at left, and Wanda McKinney, who lost her younger brother to the disease.

U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson made an announcement on Tuesday against a grim backdrop of mock grave markers.

"Coronavirus is rip-roaring through our county, our state, and [Congressional] District 24," the Miami congresswoman said at Simonhoff Park in Liberty City.

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More than 1,000 white plastic tombstones were arrayed behind her and far to either side. Each represented someone lost to COVID-19. Some people have written the names of dead loved ones on the symbolic tombstones and come there to grieve. At the start of the pandemic, many people couldn't attend funerals of family and friends.

The focus of the event was a $2.3 million federal grant, made possible by the CARES Act, aimed at improving health care in neighborhoods with large populations of Black residents in Miami-Dade County, including Liberty City, Brownsville, Allapattah, Wynwood, Little Haiti, and North Miami, particularly curbing the rampant spread of COVID-19.

The grant will support a partnership between the Jesse Trice Community Health System in Liberty City and Florida International University's Green Family Foundation Neighborhood Health Education Learning Program (NeighborhoodHELP). It will help fund COVID-19 testing during the day, evenings and on weekends at the Trice center.

"I want to recognize the Jesse Trice Community Health System and the testing initiative that you are implementing here today because everybody in our community and all communities should have an opportunity to know how they're feeling ... be tested and as a way to prevent anyone from getting sick," Miami Mayor Francis Suarez said.

The county is approaching 4,000 people dead from COVID-19, said Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava "and until Congresswoman Wilson did this important memorial, they were not acknowledged, they were not memorialized in our community."

Liberty City park.jpg
Verónica Zaragovia
Rochelle Lightfoot sang "Amazing Grace" on Nov. 24, 2020 at the Simonhoff Park in Liberty City, which has a memorial to the people who've died from COVID-19.

The funding will also help enable efforts like testing and medicine for HIV and AIDS, and care for mental illness as well as oral health diseases. The partnership with FIU includes home visits to patients by the university's medical students.

Dwight Jackson, the proprietor and funeral director of Richardson Mortuary, sighed deeply before he spoke at the microphone. "This is a really difficult time for me right now, Jackson said. "I'm a front-line guy. We're asked to prepare their loved ones who they've never seen at the hospital, who just went in for one condition and all of a sudden they lose their life."

He echoed the pleas made throughout the one-hour event, at which speakers kept their masks on while talking: Wear a mask, wash your hands and keep a safe physical distance from others.

"The numbers are not lying," he added. "My business has increased, and 20% of that is because of COVID-19."

Dr. Inaki Bent, an attending physician at the Jackson Health System who also teaches medicine at FIU, said he grew up not far from the park.

"The number of tombstones that I look out and see here it’s very chilling," Bent said. "Unfortunately, I've been the bearer of bad news for many families during this pandemic. I liken what's going on here in 2020 similar to [the Sept. 11] tragedy. I’m pleading to the community to help us fight this hidden disease, this hidden enemy. I'm asking everyone to be patriotic. Following that tragedy, the country rallied around a common goal at defeating an enemy. So I'm asking the community to rally around defeating this enemy so we won’t have any more victims."

Annie Neasman, CEO and president of Jesse Trice Community Health System, also reminded people the importance of getting a test.

"We want you to know whether you have COVID, and then you can protect yourselves, your family and your community," Neasman said. COVID-19 is especially dangerous to people with comorbidities like diabetes and hypertension, that's why they're focusing on more than just testing.

Rep. Wilson agreed and repeated the main message once more.

"Wear your damn mask, wash your damn hands and give me some space," she said, wearing a mask and one of her signature cowboy hats. "That's my commercial for today."