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Unrest In West Baltimore Puts Elderly And Sick At Additional Risk


Here's a harsh reality of Baltimore's recent unrest. When you loot or burn your local pharmacy, it will stay closed for a while. Now sick and elderly people who rely on half a dozen closed pharmacies are paying the price. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: I'm standing here at North and Pennsylvania Avenues. This is where the protests were centered last week, and life seems to be coming back to normal. But this CVS here right in front of me, the building is still charred. You still see plywood over the windows, and residents still can't buy their prescriptions, including senior citizens living right next door in this apartment building.

LEANA WEN: Good morning. How are you, ma'am?

DEBRA MARTIN: I need somebody to help me. I need my medication. I need refills right now.

WANG: Sixty-two-year-old Debra Martin lives here at Penn North Plaza, a low-income apartment building for seniors. This morning, Martin's meeting with Baltimore city Health Commissioner Leana Wen.

WEN: Let me take a look and see...

MARTIN: And they only gave me enough to last me to the day after today.

WEN: Until today...


WEN: ...Oh, this one is out, so this is naproxen.

WANG: Wen leaves Martin with three numbers - 3-1-1. The city services line has been helping people after more than two dozen pharmacies were shuttered or closed early. It's a service that Wen says the health department didn't expect the city would need.

WEN: We don't think about it in the midst of protest and violence and unrest because we think about the immediate - who is injured? Who is bleeding? Who has direct trauma?

WANG: And drugstores that have stayed open, even those a few blocks away, may not be accessible to some of the most vulnerable.

WEN: We met so many who are in wheelchairs, with walkers, on oxygen. And a few blocks really could be the difference between life and death.

WANG: Wen says the closings endangered the health of hundreds of residents already at risk. The life expectancy here is significantly shorter than in some other parts of the city.

WEN: We have to get to the bottom of our rampant health disparities and start addressing the roots of our problems, including with poverty, with unemployment, with housing.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: ...Bananas, cantaloupes.

WANG: A few blocks down from Penn North Plaza, a truck stacked with crates of bananas, cantaloupes and oranges crawls down a quiet street. It's one of the few sources of fresh fruit and vegetables for residents like Sharon Austin.

SHARON AUSTIN: Well, there ain't no corner stores now. They burned it up. We can go to CVS, get medicine, toiletries, personals, food or whatever. But now...

WANG: Now many have to take the bus to go downtown for their groceries.

AUSTIN: Thank you. Welcome back.

WANG: Around the corner, the neon open sign is glowing again at Keystone Pharmacy. Owner Dwayne Weaver had to close his business for more than a week after it was looted.

DWAYNE WEAVER: We were wiped out, almost entirely wiped out of all OTC cough and cold, snacks, chips and medications.

WANG: On this morning, many of the shelves behind the counter are still bare. Weaver says he doesn't think the people who ransacked the store were from the neighborhood.

WEAVER: This is not my patient base. The customers are a very loyal, very decent law-abiding people. These are people outside the neighborhood who were disrupting and destroying a pharmacy that ultimately was probably servicing their grandparents.

WANG: Not to mention longtime customers like Francine Whittington.

FRANCINE WHITTINGTON: When I called and he said he was open, I said yes, I'm happy because I would've had to go somewhere else, and I didn't want to go anywhere else. That's why I'm sitting here waiting for my medicine.

WANG: Residents in West Baltimore are still waiting for the re-opening of other pharmacies and stores that were damaged last week. CVS says it's committed to rebuilding its stores. It's only a question of when. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, Baltimore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.