COVID-19’s inequitable effect on black residents is new, but racial health disparities are not

When Long Beach first released racial data on people hospitalized for complications due to COVID-19, the disparities were stark: Black residents made up about 13% of the local population, but with the data available on April 13, they accounted for 21% of hospitalizations.

This wasn’t shocking to health officials and the black community at large. They know health disparities have been created and prolonged by generations of inequitable access to care, racist housing policies and other forms of discrimination. The coronavirus has only magnified them.

“Health disparities have been an issue for a very long time and unfortunately, when we have viruses and pandemics that occur, it really comes to light,” Carolyn Caldwell, CEO of St. Mary Medical Center, said.

Now, with more complete data available to the health department, the disparity has appeared to lessen slightly, showing that black residents now account for 17% of hospitalizations. But the differences are still pronounced, with white residents—who make up about 28% of the population in Long Beach—accounting for only 24% of the hospitalizations.

For 65-year-old Long Beach resident Jacquelyn Brown, her symptoms started as a cough in January. She went to the doctors where she was given steroids and her cough went away, but in March it came back. This time it was uncontrollable. She had trouble breathing.

Brown later tested positive for the virus, she said during a panel discussion hosted by city officials and black leaders about the impacts of COVID-19 on the African American community.

While she stayed home and recovered, her daughter also got the virus and has been in the hospital on a ventilator for more than 30 days. She was only just recently moved out of the ICU, Brown said.

“If I could just plead with our community to take the stay-home orders seriously, even when the economy opens,” Brown said. “Nothing is worth jeopardizing your life or someone else’s life.”

Why is there a disparity?

COVID-19 hospitalizations and complications tend to happen when patients have underlying health conditions like heart disease, diabetes and asthma. African Americans are more at risk for those diseases, according to Dr. Anissa Davis, Long Beach’s health officer.

“There’s nothing inherently that makes African Americans necessarily more susceptible to certain conditions, but there are a lot of historical things that have happened that have laid the foundation for having a less healthy population,” Davis said. “So we know that having good educational opportunities, good paying jobs, having a good place to live, these are all things that are directly tied to how healthy you are, and so because of the history of African Americans in the United States, we’ve had less of those opportunities.”

Coronavirus

Dr. Anissa Davis, Health Officer for the City of Long Beach, talks during a media conference along with Long Beach government and health officials about the COVID-19 virus In Long Beach on Thursday Feb.27, 2020. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

For Long Beach specifically, racist housing policies that decades ago forced people of color to less desirable neighborhoods ended up pushing them to areas near freeways and oil refineries, like North Long Beach and the Westside, according to Naomi Rainey-Pierson, president of the Long Beach NAACP.

“What’s near the west side? Pollution, causing a high asthma rate and other respiratory problems,” she said.

Another factor driving the disparity is intergenerational households, which often include at-risk seniors living with their children and grandchildren in one home, said Pastor Wayne Chaney, who leads Antioch Church in Long Beach. The younger people still have to go to work, often in essential roles, in order to survive economically.

“What do you do with children and grandchildren who are still in the workforce?” Chaney said. “They feel a pressure to go to work and put themselves in harm’s way and then have to go home to an intergenerational dwelling.”

Experts said another set of hurdles during the pandemic are the historic failings of the health care system that bred distrust. It’s known as the “Tuskegee effect,” dating back to 1932 when public health officials followed 600 black men with syphilis for decades and did not tell them about or treat them for the disease, which ultimately killed many of them. The study ended in 1972.

“It’s very real,” said Caldwell. “…There is this distrust of the health care system. Some of that goes back to the Tuskegee syphilis event that happened for over 40 years and people still remember that. That’s another reason I think that it’s so important that the organizations here in Long Beach go out into the communities because it’s people there that look like them. And not just African American communities, the Latino communities, the Asian community and Cambodian communities.”

What are we doing about it?

Rainey-Pierson said she is most concerned about finding solutions, noting that even though the virus is disproportionately hitting African Americans and other people of color, it still is affecting everyone.

“I don’t believe any of us are an island, and when the bell tolls, it tolls for all of us,”  Rainey-Pierson said. “If I go outside and contract the coronavirus then I impact my friends, my family and it continues to spread.”

Naomi Rainey-Pierson, President of the Long Beach branch NAACP right, hands Adrienne Albert a box of gloves and mask, Thursday, April 30, 2020. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

Others have pushed for wide-reaching, direct action to address the systemic problems. Long Beach’s chapter of Black Lives Matter made a list of 57 demands to county and city leaders. They want immediate relief in testing, patient rights, education, public safety, income support and more.

“These demands are immediate—meant for emergency implementation during the COVID-19 crisis as well as long-term and necessary to eradicate the underlying conditions at the root of the disproportionate impact of the public health crisis,” a statement from the group reads.

Others urged more personal action. In a town hall hosted by the city, Dr. Thema Bryant encouraged listeners to be mindful of the stress and trauma being caused by the pandemic and to seek help from therapists and mental health professionals through phone calls, video chats and free apps.

Chaney said his church has ramped up efforts to help congregants and their families and friends through their therapy ministry, adding more mental health professionals to meet the need.

For the city’s part, health officials have been working to establish more testing centers in different parts of the city, adding five new locations: Long Beach City College’s Pacific Coast Campus, Jordan High School, Jordan Plus High School, Cabrillo High School and St. Mary Medical Center. Health officials have specifically targeted North Long Beach for testing because of its high population of black residents.

The response has been positive at the St. Mary testing site, said Caldwell, the hospital executive.

“The first day of testing was on April 20 and by 8:40 a.m. we’d already screened 17 individuals and we hadn’t even been open for an hour,” Caldwell said.

Davis, the city health officer, said Long Beach is also working with community leaders to make sure people are getting accurate information. The problem itself though, is much bigger.

“As long as things are inequitable in our opportunities, we will continue to see this,” Davis said. “… It all comes back to what kind of opportunities you have and the chronic stress of institutional racism that you’re living with your entire life.”

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Valerie Osier is a breaking news and crime reporter for the Long Beach Post. She’s a Riverside native who found her love for journalism while at community college. She graduated from Cal State University, Long Beach journalism program in 2017 and covered the Palos Verdes Peninsula for the Daily Breeze prior to coming to the Post. She lives in Long Beach with her husband, Steven, and her cat/child, Jones.
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