Last month, we crossed an important milestone: living with COVID-19 for two years. More than 900,000 Americans have died from the virus, and the impact it has made on our lives — from how we work, to how we socialize and even how we think about our health. But, according to the CDC, some Americans have felt the impact in an even deeper way that is all too familiar for those of us who work in health equity.
According to the CDC, Black, Brown and Indigenous communities have been rocked disproportionately by the pandemic when it comes to cases, hospitalizations and deaths. Based on available data through late 2021, American Indian, Alaska Native, and Hispanic or Latino persons were 1.6 times more likely to test positive. Black, Latino, and Indigenous persons were also more than two to three times more likely to be hospitalized, and about two times more likely to die.
On January 17, my dad would have celebrated his 80th birthday, but he too was taken during this pandemic. While the loss of a parent at any age is never easy, sadly, 1 in 500 children in the United States lost a primary caregiver between April 1, 2020, through June 30, 2021. In a study published in the October 7, 2021, issue of Pediatrics, children from racial and ethnic minoritized groups accounted for 65% of those who lost a parent, custodial grandparent or grandparent caregiver.
Inequity and racism as a system of structuring opportunity and resources has repercussions on care and care-seeking behaviors, which has been a force multiplier in this crisis and every public health crisis before it. And without a strong push for equity in all our intervention strategies and preparedness efforts, the vicious cycle will persist, even as we progress out of this pandemic. Unless we practice a swarm of multi-layered mitigation strategies leveraging hyperlocal assets as well as federal, state and local partnerships and systems, historically marginalized groups will bear an unjust burden for more years to come.
We now know that getting vaccinated and boosted has been key in the fight against COVID-19 and staving off severe disease, including hospitalization and death. Assistant Secretary for Health and Human Services, Dr. Rachel Levine has said, “The unvaccinated are 17 times more likely to be hospitalized and 20 times more likely to die than those who’ve been vaccinated and boosted.” While the vaccination gap among Americans by race and ethnicity narrowed, especially among Latinos, with the low uptake of boosters, only 43% of those 18 and older have received their booster, and the concern and gap have re-emerged.
These facts and statistics are startling and raise into sharp relief the challenges that unserved and underserved communities in the U.S. face today — and will continue to face beyond COVID-19. But I have hope.
The scientific advances we’ve seen in COVID-19 vaccines bolstered by the drumbeat for health justice have been particularly inspiring. And let’s not forget that Black Americans have played a crucial role in taking on this scientific and public health challenge.
While power concedes nothing without a demand, and it’s high time for systems to demonstrate accountability and to do what is in the best interests of the many and not the few. Equitable health care and the just distribution of community resources are the rights of all people. This means that systems moving forward should conspire to ensure all of America’s neighborhoods have access to every tool in our toolkit and that Americans have a place near work or home — open at hours that work for them — to receive a vaccine, get tested and receive an appropriate mask, when necessary. Making this happen is why I’m part of the American College of Preventive Medicine’s Vaccine Confident campaign.
Knowing how much my father loved data and science, and that he lived a life fighting for racial justice in the lab and in the movement, if he were still alive I’m confident he would be advocating right alongside me — advocating for our children, families and communities to be safe and protected, and demanding that all power be rendered in pursuit of health and racial justice. In honor of my dad and the over 964,000 souls we’ve lost, please let this be a lesson to take home and continue to have prevention even beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.
Do it because the only way to a lasting healthy future is together.