How racism contributes to the effects of SARS-CoV-2


t’s been about two months since I volunteered in a hospital in Brooklyn, working in an ICU taking care of patients with COVID-19. I’m back home in California now but with new perspectives, not only on the pandemic, but on those who are affected by it the most.

Arghavan Salles, MD Courtesy Dr. Arghavan Salles

Dr. Arghavan Salles

Everyone seems to have forgotten the early days of the pandemic – the time when the ICUs were overrun, we were using FEMA ventilators, and endocrinologists and psychiatrists were acting as intensivists.

Even though things are opening up and people are taking summer vacations in a seemingly amnestic state, having witnessed multiple daily deaths remains a part of my daily consciousness. As I see the case numbers climbing juxtaposed against people being out and about without masks, my anxiety level is rising.

A virus doesn’t discriminate. It can fly through the air, landing on the next available surface. If that virus is SARS-CoV-2 and that surface is a human mucosal membrane, the virus makes itself at home. It orders furniture, buys a fancy mattress and a large high definition TV, hangs art on the walls, and settles in for the long haul. It’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

Even as an equal opportunity virus, what SARS-CoV-2 has done is to hold a mirror up to the healthcare system. It has shown us what was here all along. When people first started noticing that underrepresented minorities were more likely to contract the virus and get sick from it, I heard musings that this was likely because of their preexisting health conditions. For example, commentators on cable news were quick to point out that black people are more likely than other people to have hypertension or diabetes. So doesn’t that explain why they are more affected by this virus?

That certainly is part of the story, but it doesn’t entirely explain the discrepancies we’ve seen. For example, in New York 14% of the population is black, and 25% of those who had a COVID-related death were black patients. Similarly, 19% of the population is Hispanic or Latino, and they made up 26% of COVID-related deaths. On the other hand, 55% of the population in New York is white, and white people account for only 34% of COVID-related deaths.

Working in Brooklyn, I didn’t need to be a keen observer to notice that, out of our entire unit of about 20-25 patients, there was only one patient in a 2-week period who was neither black nor Hispanic.

As others have written, there are other factors at play. I’m not sure how many of those commentators back in March stopped to think about why black patients are more likely to have hypertension and diabetes, but the chronic stress of facing racism on a daily basis surely contributes. Beyond those medical problems, minorities are more likely to live in multigenerational housing, which means that it is harder for them to isolate from others. In addition, their living quarters tend to be further from health care centers and grocery stores, which makes it harder for them to access medical care and healthy food.

As if that weren’t enough to put their health at risk, people of color are also affected by environmental racism . Factories with toxic waste are more likely to be built in or near neighborhoods filled with people of color than in other communities. On top of that, black and Hispanic people are also more likely to be under- or uninsured, meaning they often delay seeking care in order to avoid astronomic healthcare costs.

Black and Hispanic people are also more likely than others to be working in the service industry or other essential services, which means they are less likely to be able to work from home. Consequently, they have to risk more exposures to other people and the virus than do those who have the privilege of working safely from home. They also are less likely to have available paid leave and, therefore, are more likely to work while sick.

With the deck completely stacked against them, underrepresented minorities also face systemic bias and racism when interacting with the health care system. Physicians mistakenly believe black patients experience less pain than other patients, according to some research. Black mothers have significantly worse health care outcomes than do their non-black counterparts, and the infant mortality rate for Black infants is much higher as well.

Courtesy Dr. Arghavan Salles

Dr. Arghavan Salles volunteering at an ICU in Brooklyn, NY.

In my limited time in Brooklyn, taking care of almost exclusively black and Hispanic patients, I saw one physician assistant and one nurse who were black; one nurse practitioner was Hispanic. This mismatch is sadly common. Although 13% of the population of the United States is black, only 5% of physicians in the United States are black. Hispanic people, who make up 18% of the US population, are only 6% of physicians. This undoubtedly contributes to poorer outcomes for underrepresented minority patients who have a hard time finding physicians who look like them and understand them.

So while SARS-CoV-2 may not discriminate, the effects it has on patients depends on all of these other factors. If it flies through the air and lands on the mucosal tract of a person who works from home, has effective health insurance and a primary care physician, and lives in a community with no toxic exposures, that person may be more likely to kick it out before it has a chance to settle in. The reason we have such a huge disparity in outcomes related to COVID-19 by race is that a person meeting that description is less likely to be black or Hispanic. Race is not an independent risk factor; structural racism is.

When I drive by the mall that is now open or the restaurants that are now open with indoor dining, my heart rate quickens just a bit with anxiety. The pandemic fatigue people are experiencing is leading them to act in unsafe ways – gathering with more people, not wearing masks, not keeping a safe distance. I worry about everyone, sure, but I really worry about black and Hispanic people who are most vulnerable as a result of everyone else’s refusal to follow guidelines.

Dr. Salles is a bariatric surgeon and is currently a Scholar in Residence at Stanford (Calif.) University. Find her on Twitter @arghavan_salles.

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