COVID-19 cases highlight longstanding racial disparities in health care



African Americans are overrepresented among patients who have died as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the current crisis puts a spotlight on long-standing racial disparities in health care and health access in the United States, according to David R. Williams, PhD, a professor of public health at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston.

Dr. Williams, a social scientist specializing in the link between race and health, is a professor of African and African American Studies and of Sociology at Harvard. He spoke on the topic of racial disparities amid the COVID-19 pandemic in a teleconference sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

“Many Americans are shocked” by the higher mortality rates among African American COVID-19 patients, said Dr. Williams. However, data from decades of research show that “black people in America live sicker and shorter lives,” he said.

Keys to the increased mortality among African Americans include an increased prevalence of risk factors, increased risk for exposure to the virus because of socioeconomic factors, and less access to health care if they do become ill, he said.

Many minority individuals work outside the home in areas deemed essential during the pandemic, such as transit, delivery, maintenance, cleaning, and in businesses such as grocery stores, although in general “race continues to matter for health at every level of income and education,” Dr. Williams said.

In addition, social distance guidelines are not realistic for many people in high-density, low-income areas, who often live in shared, multigenerational housing, he said.

Data show that individuals with chronic conditions such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease are more likely to die as a result of COVID-19, and minority populations are more likely to develop these conditions at younger ages, Dr. Williams noted. Access to health care also plays a role. Many minority individuals of lower socioeconomic status are less likely to have health insurance, or if they do, may have Medicaid, which is not consistently accepted, he said. Also, some low-income neighborhoods lack convenient access to primary care and thus to screening services, he noted.

Dr. David R. Williams

Dr. Williams said the COVID-19 pandemic could serve as an opportunity to examine and improve health care services for underserved communities. In the short term, “we need to collect data so we can see patterns” and address pressing needs, he said, but long-term goals should “prioritize investments that would create healthy homes and communities,” he emphasized.

A recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report cited COVID-NET (the COVID-19 Associated Hospitalization Surveillance Network) as showing that, in their catchment population, “approximately 59% of residents are white, 18% are black, and 14% are Hispanic; however, among 580 hospitalized COVID-19 patients with race/ethnicity data, approximately 45% were white, 33% were black, and 8% were Hispanic, suggesting that black populations might be disproportionately affected by COVID-19,” the researchers said.

“These findings, including the potential impact of both sex and race on COVID-19–associated hospitalization rates, need to be confirmed with additional data,” according to the report.

Collecting racial/ethnic information is not always feasible on the front lines, and many areas still face shortages of ventilators and protective equipment, said Dr. Williams.

“I want to salute the providers on the front lines of this pandemic, many putting their own lives at risk, I want to acknowledge the good that they are doing,” Dr. Williams emphasized. He noted that all of us, himself included, may have conscious or unconscious stereotypes, but the key is to acknowledge the potential for these thoughts and feelings and continue to provide the best care.

Dr. Clyde W. Yancy

Clyde W. Yancy, MD, of Northwestern University in Chicago, expressed similar concerns about disparity in COVID-19 cases in an editorial published on April 15 in JAMA.

“Researchers have emphasized older age, male sex, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, concomitant cardiovascular diseases (including coronary artery disease and heart failure), and myocardial injury as important risk factors associated with worse outcomes,” wrote Dr. Yancy. However, evidence also suggests that “persons who are African American or black are contracting SARS-CoV-2 at higher rates and are more likely to die,” he said.

“Why is this uniquely important to me? I am an academic cardiologist; I study health care disparities; and I am a black man,” he wrote.

“Even though these data are preliminary and further study is warranted, the pattern is irrefutable: Underrepresented minorities are developing COVID-19 infection more frequently and dying disproportionately,” said Dr. Yancy.

Dr. Williams’ and Dr. Yancy’s comments were supported by an analysis of COVID-19 patient data from several areas of the country conducted by the Washington Post. In that analysis, data showed that several counties with a majority black population showed three times the rate of COVID-19 infections and approximately six times as many deaths compared with counties with a majority of white residents.

“The U.S. has needed a trigger to fully address health care disparities; COVID-19 may be that bellwether event,” said Dr. Yancy. “Certainly, within the broad and powerful economic and legislative engines of the US, there is room to definitively address a scourge even worse than COVID-19: health care disparities. It only takes will. It is time to end the refrain,” he said.

Dr. Williams had no financial conflicts to disclose. Dr. Yancy had no financial conflicts to disclose.

SOURCES: Yancy CW. JAMA 2020 Apr 15. doi: 10.1001/jama.2020.6548Garg S et al. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2020 Apr 8;69:458-64.

Thebault R et al. The coronavirus is infecting and killing black Americans at an alarmingly high rate. Washington Post. 2020 Apr 7.

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