Officials address racial health disparities amid COVID-19 pandemic

While Virginia ranks well in terms of social and economic outcomes, the commonwealth struggles with access to health care

20/20 Focus: The Push for Equality: Pandemic exposes systemic issues in health care
20/20 Focus: The Push for Equality: Pandemic exposes systemic issues in health care

ROANOKE, Va – 2020 has been a year of conversations about equity and racial healing in the United States.

As the year comes to a close and the nation prepares for COVID-19 vaccine distribution, health officials are shifting their efforts to meet the needs of historically underserved populations.

Health disparities among Hispanic and African American populations long predate the coronavirus pandemic. But with thousands of new infections nationwide each day, the increasing number of sick people only shines a brighter spotlight on systemic racial issues in health care.

“It’s just the fact that we have a legacy of denying opportunity to too many people based on their physical characteristics,” said Dr. Gail Christopher, executive director of the National Collaborative for Health Equity.

The National Collaborative for Health Equity has been studying these disparities for years, but uses the Hope Initiative to compare how different social factors can play a role in how healthy each state is.

While Virginia ranks well in terms of social and economic outcomes, the commonwealth struggles with access to health care.

“The gaps in health outcomes per se are definitely associated with things like concentrated poverty and you have more people living in highly-concentrated areas of poverty, there’s a link between health outcome gaps, and people who actually have a living wage or earn a living wage,” Christopher said.

During a recent speech at University of Virginia Medical Center, Doctor Anthony Fauci cited a study that claims only 25% of African American and 37% of Hispanic people polled would take a COVID-19 vaccine.

“This is something that we must address by outreach in the community by individuals that the community actually trusts, so we’ve got to get that done and we’ve got to get it done quickly,” NIAID Director Dr. Anthony Fauci said.

On a local level, the Virginia Department of Health is hosting several outreach campaigns for at-risk populations. Some officials say they may even have priority in vaccination efforts.

“That is a high priority population and that is something that will definitely come into play when offering out the vaccine you want to look at those more vulnerable populations who have poorer health outcomes in your prioritization process,” New River health director Dr. Noelle Bissell said.

On a larger scale, equity experts believe that the United States needs to address the social and economic factors that create such a gap in health care.

“I think that the way forward is a comprehensive commitment to fairness and equity in our country and to getting over the legacy of seeing ourselves as so different, you know we are a true, one interconnected interdependent human, we are more biologically alike than we are different,” Christopher said.

The Virginia Department of Health is hosting several informational sessions regarding COVID-19 vaccine information this month.


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