Doctor calls for changes as African Americans account for a disproportionate number of COVID-19 deaths

Public health experts say COVID-19 took the wraps off long-standing health care inequities...
Public health experts say COVID-19 took the wraps off long-standing health care inequities among African Americans.(Source: WVUE)
Updated: Jul. 21, 2020 at 7:05 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - The lethality of COVID-19 is evident in a disproportionate way among African Americans and a Drexel University social epidemiologist and a New Orleans physician say changes must be made to address systemic inequities that affect blacks.

Dr. Sharrelle Barber is a social epidemiologist and faculty member in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the Drexel University Dornsife School of Public Health. She said thousands more African Americans have died from the virus since the start of July.

“As of early July, early 30,000 African Americans have passed, and these are confirmed deaths due to COVID-19. Blacks have a three to four times more likely to die from COVID-19,” said Barber.

In Louisiana, though the numbers are improving African Americans still account for more than 51 percent of the coronavirus deaths in the state.

Barber discussed the pandemic’s impact with FOX 8 News through SciLine which works to connect public health experts with the news media.

“Blacks are less likely to be insured, less likely to have physical access to health care facilities and so that prevents testing, follow-up treatment,” said Barber.

Dr. Eric Griggs, a medical doctor and health educator in New Orleans says health care inequities have long affected African Americans.

“Health disparities and the African American community existed way before COVID-19, there’s a long historical context to all of that, access to care, mistrust of the system, inequitable care, all those things existed before,” said Griggs.

Barber said many people of color work low-income jobs that expose them to a lot of people, but they are not afforded sick leave.

“And there’s at this moment no real enforcement of OSHA regulations that would kind of make it so that workplaces have to have human and working conditions that would mitigate the spread,” Barber stated.

Griggs said the pandemic has taken the bandages off the problems for all the world to see and structural changes are imperative.

“It exposes the vulnerabilities that were already there. It’s a pressing thing, the elephant is now not in the corner of the room, it’s in the middle of the room and there’s no time like the present to solve the problem,” said Griggs.

Barber agrees.

“Provide them with personal protective equipment, you provide them with paid sick leave, you provide them with the necessary things they need to stay safe,” Barber said. “We make sure that testing is available, free testing and follow-up treatment is available in those communities.

Barber said health care for all is also needed. She said there are other inequities African American communities face daily including a lack of investment.

“You also have to think about access to healthy foods, the limited places to engage in physical activity, the chronic stressors that occur within the context of Black communities. All of these come together to then produce these underlying conditions which in this pandemic are making it more likely for individuals to die and so we’re seeing this in cities across the country,” said Barber.

She said the status quo is not acceptable.

“This COVID-19 is basically saying that we cannot go back to normal, normal doesn’t work and in fact it’s killing us,” Barber stated.

“A lot of people don’t have access to transportation,” said Griggs. “There are what you call it implicit bias when they go to actually see a doctor.”

And there are persistent environmental concerns as many African American communities are located near train tracks and industrial complexes.

“Exposure to toxins, in terms of pollution and other sources of toxins is rampant in black communities. We know this, there’s data that shows this,” said Barber.

She and Griggs urge everyone to wear masks and practice social distancing.

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