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New Orleans East And COVID-19: A Response From Councilwoman Nguyen

Ben Depp
National Geographic Society
People line up to be tested for the coronavirus at Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Olreans East. May 7, 2020.

Last week, New Orleans Public Radio ran a story about the high rate of infection and spread of COVID-19 in New Orleans East. City Councilwoman Cyndi Nguyen, who represents District E, wanted to respond to the piece and discuss efforts to help people in the hard-hit area.

She talked with reporter Tegan Wendland.

Tegan Wendland: In your opinion, what really needs to be done for New Orleans East right now? Are there plans to distribute more masks or do outreach for essential workers there?

Cyndi Nguyen: Yes. So there are several strategies that we're doing because obviously the needs are great out there, particularly the fact that District E is one of the largest districts in the city of New Orleans, and I get that fully. And so we have established very stable and consistent meal and food distributing. And it took a lot of effort from the beginning of COVID to now. One of the key things is that this meal and food distribution happens every week. So it's not just when we're able to attract resources. But we've been very fortunate to engage with great partners that have been very committed in working with us and partnering with us to do this.

And as you know, as a City Council member, I don't have a food pantry. I don't have meals at all. And so what we've done is I'll start in the Lower Nine, I also represent the Lower Nine. We have roughly about nine to 10 thousand residents over there. Predominantly low-income families and areas that have been struggling since Katrina. Pre-COVID-19 there's been challenges there. And then now that we're in COVID-19 the challenges have grown even bigger.

In New Orleans East, the infection rate is four times higher than in the rest of Louisiana. What kind of problems are playing out in New Orleans East right now?

Well, honestly, if you look at the data, it shows that it's around the 70126 zip code. That's in the east but I don't have the bulk of 70126. It's shared between District E and District D. And so while testing is an issue, and we're working really closely with the Department of Health and Hospitals, and with the city, as well Ochsner.

So we kicked off a testing site at Franklin Avenue Baptist Church — three days there — and we exceeded our numbers. There's days where we're doing 250-300 tests — all three days. And we were done by noon. So that tells you that people are wanting the service. We were just in the Lower Nine, and again, the same outcome — 250 by noon and we were done. Now we're targeting the Village De L'Est in the Michoud area. We're also going to be traveling to Venetian Isles, then we're going to head over to Little Woods, which is also another area that needs testing as well. And we just engaged a partnership with The James M Singleton Head Start center where we will be providing testing there. And we purposely targeted that location. So residents could actually walk up because they are issues of transportation in that area. So I'm very mindful of it. And we are going to continue testing in other areas, like the Goose neighborhood, the Rosedale neighborhood off of Chef. 

You're describing the city's mobile testing site, which has been deployed at Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, and Village De L'Est. And the site provides up to 250 free COVID-19 tests per day. It sounds like you're saying there's been a pretty high demand for those tests?

Yes. Wherever we go, we do aggressive outreach. So we do outreach to make sure that people are aware of it because many times people need it, but if they're not aware of the service coming to their neighborhood, they may not know to get access to it. So setting up the testing site is one thing, but conducting aggressive outreach, connecting with groups in that area to make sure that they help mobilize the residents in that area to come out and access the service.

Now we're going to evaluate all these sites that we're traveling to and if we find that there's a greater need, we will revisit. We're just trying to hit different areas so that way people know that we do care, that they do matter. 

One of the critiques that I heard in the course of my reporting was that your outreach has been more symbolic than substantial — that you've been providing mutual aid in the form of food and mass deliveries, but maybe not directly addressing the systemic issues in the East of poverty, lack of access to health care and lack of access to healthy food and safe transportation through concrete policy proposals. So what's your response to that critique?

Well, right now, we started the teleconference and policy decision doesn't happen overnight. And that is something that we worked on prior to COVID-19. COVID has kind of caused a delay and policy decision and development — it's not just me coming up with a policy.

When you talk about transportation for example, working with RTA and the Regional Planning Commission in recreating and looking at many of the bus lines, looking at bus stops, areas that don't have proper bus stops or people to have access to RTA services and looking at their schedules. COVID-19 has put a pause to it, only a pause. So that doesn't mean that we're not going to revisit.

You talked about access to food, that's what I did immediately. I came over to America when I was 5 years old. I came from Vietnam and my family spent days out on the boat. And I remember at five years old, my mother was sick and was pregnant with my little brother. There was very limited food accessibility on the boat. I remember sharing a bowl of noodles with my siblings. And I also remember, through my parents sharing the story with us, that we had to make sure that my mother was well-nourished because she was caring an unborn baby. And so access to food has always been very important. And when COVID 19 happened that was my immediate thought, that I did not want any of my residents in my district not to have access to food.

Credit Ben Depp / National Geographic Society
National Geographic Society
Cyndi Nguyen, New Orleans city council member, and staff member Monica Rainey, unload baby food and diapers and other food items they are delivering directly to those who have requested assistance. April 28, 2020.

Obviously, you didn't foresee a pandemic when you ran for office. So how does this change your priorities in terms of serving your constituents?

It didn't change my priorities because this is stuff that we were working on. We had to look at immediate resolution, or solutions, to address the immediate needs. And so while we're not looking at policy for the past eight weeks, we implemented infrastructure programs that people could get access to food immediately.

Transportation — that's more of a challenge, because RTA had to shut down services because of COVID-19. They are back operating now. And I participated in the Ride NOLA conference via Zoom, so I'm engaged in policy decisions, policy planning, in reference to what does transportation look like for the East as we move forward.

We even work on [bus] shelter, as I mentioned to you. You know, right before COVID-19, we started implementing and restoring a lot of the areas that needed proper shelter. For instance, Nazareth 1 and 2, which is our senior retirement home off of Hayne. They did not have a shelter out there. Right before Christmas we were able to have RTA install a bus shelter for our senior citizens so that way they will have access to bus service and not have to sit out in the rain or in the heat without any seating at all. 

After our piece came out on the high rates of infection in New Orleans East, your office reached out to me saying that you wanted to respond. Were there things that you wanted to say in response to that piece?

First of all, it was my oversight not responding to email — it was not on purpose. For the past nine weeks, I have literally been working eight days a week. Twenty-five hours a day. I'm more of boots on the ground, out there in the community and connecting with my constituents. Every community has its challenges. I don't think right now that the East is any different from anywhere in the city.

When I took office, we continued to work against a negative perception of the East. And I guess in a way, I was a little bit frustrated because I am really trying my best. Shifting a district is not going to happen overnight. Rome was not built overnight. And I guess for me it was like, I am really trying my best it would be great if we had a partnership that could recognize that. But I also recognize the fact that I had oversight in not connecting with you. Like I said, we're doing everything we can and we're trying to reach everybody as fast as we can.

And going back to the mask situation, I immediately recognized as we were moving into the COVID 19 that people need to mask up. I also recognized that getting access to masks will be a challenge for some of my residents. I was very fortunate to receive a donation of 28,000 masks, which I had been doing for the past two weeks. At every food distributing site we have been given at masks. There are days where I spent the whole entire day delivering masks to senior citizens who are unable to get to our food and mask distributing. So we're trying everything we can. I can't do this by myself. You know, the East has its challenges. I'm not walking away from it, but I really believe when we all work together and be positive, you know, if you keep being negative, then you're not going to see the positive things that are happening out there. It is not just only my job to make the East better, it is everybody's responsibility.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tegan has reported on the coast for WWNO since 2015. In this role she has covered a wide range of issues and subjects related to coastal land loss, coastal restoration, and the culture and economy of Louisiana’s coastal zone, with a focus on solutions and the human dimensions of climate change. Her reporting has been aired nationally on Planet Money, Reveal, All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Marketplace, BBC, CBC and other outlets. She’s a recipient of the Pulitzer Connected Coastlines grant, CUNY Resilience Fellowship, Metcalf Fellowship, and countless national and regional awards.

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