Oakland, Where Prostate Cancer and COVID-19 Intersect

Pictured left to right are Gerald Green, Michael Shaw, Kim Rhoads, and Arnold Perkins, receiving a Prostate Cancer Awareness Proclamation from the Alameda County Board of Supervisors (pre-COVID).

African American men wear a capitol “S” on their chess, not for “Superman” but for “Stress,” which is a leading source of comorbidities like hypertension and diabetes.

I was one of the original members of the Prostate Health Support Group for African American Men (PHSGAAM) six years ago when I met Dr. Palmer help African American men negotiate around the “Hobson’s Choice” many medical doctors provided them. I wrote Prostate Cancer Dream Theft for Oakland Voices, in which I asked, “Aren’t all men in America entitled to a life full of hopes and dreams?” 

Unfortunately, then as now, prostate cancer kills many more African American men than other ethnic group. That is why I advocate in support educating African American men about prostate cancer so it doesn’t become a death sentence, and for me—I have thrived 12 years with prostate cancer—I gladly accepted chairmanship of Friends of Dr. Frank Staggers, Sr., a group that was born out of the University of California San Francisco’s Community Action Board.  

How Prostate Cancer and COVID Intersect

Before Community Action Boards, African American men were underrepresented in prostate cancer research and clinical trials. As a result, some procedures and therapies lacked efficacy and had the potential to do harm. However, through groups like the Prostate Health Support Group for African American Men (PHSGAAM), which grew out of an UCSF’s CAB and along with similar advocacy groups from around the country, opportunities opened up for African American men to participate in clinical trials and some procedures changed.

Now, African Americans should have COVID-19 vaccines efficacy discussions with panels that include participants like Harriet Washington, author of Medical Apartheid and Deadly Monopolies, to verify the vaccine does no harm.  

When coupled with prostate cancer, it potentially worsens the impact of COVID-19. Unfortunately, zip codes with high concentration of African Americans are typically over-policed, which causes that “S” to become even bigger, resulting in more prostate cancer comorbid deaths and now add COVID-19 to that already toxic brew.  

Pivoting to Focus on COVID Testing Among African Americans

In June, Friends of Dr. Frank Staggers, Sr., was supposed to hold a walk around Lake Merritt; however, COVID-19 made that impossible and so, the FoF pivoted from its sole focus on prostate cancer. 

The Friends of Dr. Frank Staggers, Sr. recruited African American men from the Prostate Health Support Group for African American Men, which was started by Arnold Perkins, a sixteen-year prostate cancer survivor, who serves as the current chair of UCSF CABs, Michael Shaw director of the Alameda Office of Public Health Male Initiative and Ms. Nynikka Palmer, PhD researcher at UCSF. 

“You never said no to Dr. Staggers, because he never said no to the community.” He became the first chair of the board of the Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center.


Kim F. Rhoads, MD, MS, MPH, FACS, Associate Professor, Epidemiology & Biostatistics Affiliate Philip R. Lee Institute for Health Policy Studies, Associate Director, and Community Engagement Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center, is affectionately known as Dr. “K.” Her ability to pull in and motivate volunteers kept everyone energized, because we saw how hard she worked at bringing health services to the community, that looks like the community— a key to building trust in our communities. Through her, UCSF provided seed funding for its first planned event—the walk around the Lake.

But due to COVID, we joined the Health and Wellness Committee created in April by the Brotherhood of Elders Network as part of their African American Rapid Response Circle to address COVID-19 health disparities in Black communities. Representatives from Alameda County Health Department and the Board of Supervisors, the City of Oakland, the California Endowment, and Oakland Frontline Healers an umbrella organization (including partners Akonadi Foundation, Adamika Village, BOSS, Urban Strategies Council, Roots, Black Cultural Zone, and James A. Watson Wellness Center) along with concerned doctors and citizens, began meeting bimonthly to tackle COVID-19’s impact—especially in Oakland’s Black Communities.

The Health and Wellness Committee decided to conduct a weekend COVID-19 testing at Eastmont Mall, a former Chevrolet automobile plant. The neighborhood fell victim to “White Flight” upon the plant’s closure. It later was rebuilt as Oakland’s largest indoor mall with anchor stores like JCPenney, Mervyns, and Woolworth’s. But they all died and now the mall consists of a few stores surrounded by health care and community organizations servicing a population where English is often the second language.

We had a few weeks to organize and pull permits or our effort would die too, so board certified surgeon Dr. K traded in her scalpel for a tape measure. She and her UCSF team measured Eastmont Mall’s lower parking lot for drive-thru and walkup lanes for COVID-19 testing. The California Endowment provided us an advertising panel truck. It traversed Black communities represented by zip codes 94605, 94621 and 94603. Our volunteers went door to door in the same zip codes announcing our popup testing event. We did press interviews; but unfortunately for us, hot weather coupled with wafting smoke from Northern California fires made for severe bad air-days and forced us to cancel our event the day before it was scheduled to occur. Those Eastmont Mall experiences became our nexuses for the following eight popup testing sites in the weeks of September and October in East Oakland.

When the FoF joined forces with other likeminded community organizations, we were able to test 1,115 people over the course two months at eight sites* yielding a total of 7 positive or 0.6% PCR test (nasal swab). It will be interesting to see how this compares with our next popup testing, scheduled to run from December through March 2021.

One surprise was the number of people (37 % of people tested) that carried Kaiser insurance who showed up for free COVID-19 test. Dr. Rhoads shared this information with Kaiser Permanente and they awarded Umoja Health a grant for $99,450 to continue doing popup testing from December through March 2021.  

Our collective work demonstrated what Ghilamichael Andemeskel, a volunteer, believes: “transformative work requires medical institutions having community facing components, leveraging key resources in service of community partners to address community needs,” a great reflection of Dr. Staggers, Sr. 

Stay tuned for information about upcoming COVID test events in East Oakland.

Volunteers and Workers that Made the Events Possible

Ghilmichael Andemeskel

Ghilmichael Andemeskel designed the Umoja Health logo.

Ghilmichael Andemeskel, a key volunteer/worker, is a graduate student at UCSF and actively supports the Prostate Health Support Group for African American Men. Here, he is pictured keying in test information so it matches with recipients. His work made it possible to get test results in 48-hours. He believes “transformative work requires medical institutions having community facing components, leveraging key resources in service of community partners to address community needs.” He named us Umoja Health, based on unity, one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa. He, also, helped design our logo.

Dr. K and Daryle Allums

Here is Dr. K in the black mask with Daryle Allums in the white mask. Daryle was key in identifying popup sites in deep East and West Oakland. He often says, “We need to show our people some love.” 

AJ Burleson

AJ Burleson packing PPEs into goody bags in Dr. K’s backyard. AJ was key in packing and unpacking the van at test sites. He believes, “If we can build a nation, we can save our communities across this country. That’s what Umoja is, like FUBU—For Us By Us-a model organized by the community for the community!”

Steven Thompson

Steven Thompson is a thriving prostate cancer survivor and member of the PHSGAAM, seen directing traffic at our popup on 84th and MacArthur Blvd. For Steven, “the best thing about helping with COVID-19 testing, was volunteering with dedicated people of all races who cared about our mission and showed up each time and were not one hit wonders.”

*The following were days where the tests were administered:

  1. 9/6/2020 @ 9am to 2pm at 6995 Foothill (Akoma)
  2.  9/18/2020 @ 9am to 4pm at 9006 MacArthur Blvd (BOSS) 
  3.  9/19/2020 @ 9am to 4pm at 8400 MacArthur Blvd (COH)
  4. 10/3/2020 @ 9am to 5pm at West Oakland BART 
  5. 10/4/2020 @ 9am to 4pm at 31st & MLK Jr
  6. 10/17/2020 @ 9am-4pm De Fremery Park 
  7. 10/18/2020 @ 9am-4pm Akoma Market
  8. 10/31/2020 @ 9am-4pm Acts Full Gospel 
Author Profile

Gerald Green is a 25-year cancer survivor. Green released his memoir Life Constricted: To Love, Hugs and Laughter in 2010, which chronicles his family’s saga and victories over his three bouts with cancer: tongue cancer in 1995, neck cancer in 1997 and prostate cancer in 2008. His chapter, Fatherhood Love, appeared in the second edition of Black Fathers an Invisible Presence in America published by Routledge in 2011. Green’s poetry has appeared in the Healing Journey, an on-line publication, and The Monthly, a premier magazine of culture and commerce, which published one of his essays. Green’s writings like his article Prostate Cancer’s Time Zone reflect the importance of early cancer detection and the healthy impact of a loving family. Green is a member of the Eastern Cooperative Oncology Group (ECOG) and the American College of Radiology Imaging Network (ACRIN) ECOG-ACRIN Head and Neck Cancer Committee and the Cancer Research Advocates Committee.

1 Comment

  1. Baba Gerald,
    Thank you for chronicling the hard work done in and by the community. UMOJA is one of the best collaborations we’ve done in Oakland in a long time.

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