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Reasons why Blacks are hit hardest by COVID-19 require prioritizing access to health care

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Reasons why Blacks are hit hardest by COVID-19 require prioritizing access to health care

A month ago, I got an email from a guy friend on the West Side. He sent a video from a black activist declaring the novel coronavirus is actually a manmade bio-weapon, is linked to 5G technology and was an excuse for the government to enact a police state.

That was March 12, three days after Gov. J.B. Pritzker declared a state of emergency in response to the growing number of Illinois cases — just 11 at the time.

A month later, we’re at 22,025 cases, 794 dead.

A subsequent phone conversation with this friend, a white-collar professional, confirmed the ever-present conspiracy theories within the black community.

Rooted not unjustly in decades-old racist travesties like the Tuskegee Experiment, distrust of the government and the American health care system underlie apprehensions about the rigid, preventative protocols warranted by a pandemic exacting heavy tolls on blacks.

With COVID-19 claiming more black lives than any other demographic, both here and nationally, conversations the past few weeks with many of my black friends highlight many of the reasons why.

As of Monday, blacks, who represent 15 percent of the state’s population, were 42.8 percent of Illinois’ COVID-19 deaths, unchanged from last week, when Pritzker and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot first sounded the alarm. At 30 percent of the city’s population, blacks comprise 64.6 percent of Chicago’s 308 deaths, down from last week’s 72 percent.

The conspiracy theories espoused by many like my guy friend only compound the exponential impact health disparities have had on black deaths from COVID-19.

With the Centers for Disease Control’s study of 1,500 hospitalized patients in 14 states last month finding the most common underlying factors were hypertension, obesity, chronic lung disease, diabetes and cardiovascular disease, it didn’t bode well for blacks.

Black adults are 60 percent more likely than whites to suffer from diabetes, 40 percent more likely for high blood pressure — and less likely to have that blood pressure under control — as noted by U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams during Friday’s White House Coronavirus Task Force Briefing.

Chicago COVID-19 Update, Aug. 13, 2020
Chicago Department of Public Health

In the same CDC study of hospitalizations, blacks represented 33 percent of those hospitalized March 1-30, though 13 percent of the U.S. population.

The prevalence of underlying conditions hit home for another friend.

A resident of the Northwest Side furloughed from her restaurant job by the pandemic, she recently experienced symptoms indicative of high blood pressure, which runs in her family. She has no health insurance. She visited no less than four urgent care centers seeking treatment. The first three wouldn’t treat her.

The fourth relented after she burst into tears at the front desk, begging to have her blood pressure checked. The nurse practitioner confirmed her blood pressure fears. Immediately put on medication, she now had the same illness as her mother, as if trying to make ends meet during a pandemic wasn’t burden enough.

Historical injustices in lack of health care access has NAACP President Derrick Johnson concerned over disparities in who is getting access to testing and treatment.

As a National Institutes of Health study of hospitals that closed between 1987-2007 found, the higher the level of residential segregation and poverty, the higher the likelihood hospitals in those communities had long ago exited. The starkest impact of health care deserts were on black communities.

Blacks represent only 15.4 percent of the 105,768 Illinoisans tested to date; whites, 23.3 percent; Hispanics, 5.86 percent; Asians, 2.25 percent; and other, 4.78 percent, though race was not noted for half of those tested.

Another friend, a white-collar worker on the South Side, highlights this issue.

She woke up last Thursday with chills and mack truck body aches, after a week of coughing and runny nose. A terrified call to her doctor at the hospital she is assigned has yet to be returned. It’s Monday. Thank God she’s feeling better.

On the flip side, I too worried about mild flu-like symptoms last week. Calling the doctor in my North Shore suburb, she immediately submitted an order for a COVID-19 test — in case I later experienced more symptoms. I didn’t, and continue to feel fine.

With COVID-19 killing blacks at a rate more than twice their population in several states, the need for more information and assistance for black communities during this pandemic is clear, and more importantly, greater access to health care.

Realities contributing to this disproportionate impact bring home the work of the Chicago Community, Media, & Research Partnership, a two-year project seeking to connect underserved communities to evidence-based health research to assist them in making better health decisions.

Co-led by Northwestern University’s Alliance for Research in Chicagoland Communities and Columbia College’s Public Narrative, the mission is to build crucial relationships between low-income communities of color, health researchers, journalists of color and other media to get information to them. Of course I agreed to help. All of us must do our part.

Had we put more focus on the racially skewed health outcomes of these communities before now, we might not be staring down a pandemic clothing itself in darkening hues.

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