Coronavirus could hit low-income, minority communities harder due to health care disparities

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CHICAGO — As we struggle to diagnose, treat and hopefully recover from COVID-19, communities of color and those with lower incomes face an even steeper challenge.

Disparities in healthcare when it comes to minority and low income communities are not new, according to Dr. Claudia Fegan, chief medical officer for Cook County Health. 

For instance, Fegan said breast cancer statistics show white women who are high school dropouts have better survival statistics than black women who have a college degree.

“We have to acknowledge the disparity that exists in the delivery of healthcare in this country,” Fegan said. “Access is a very important issue and should not be diminished, but also being able to deliver care to people and not do it in a one-box-fits-all.”

Another problem is underlying health conditions such as asthma, diabetes and heart disease,  which are prevalent in communities of color and increase a person’s vulnerability to coronavirus.  

Retired attending physician Dr. Susan Rogers said living conditions also play a role. 

“People are living in a more dense environment which makes the transmission of the COVID-19 virus more and then there’s not an opportunity for testing, healthcare early on for any disease including [COVID-19],” Rogers said.

The latest statistics of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Illinois from the Illinois Department of Public Health show 33 percent are white, 31 percent black, 10 percent identify as “other,” three percent are asian and 23 percent didn’t answer. 

When it’s broken down by ethnicity, 54 percent are non-hispanic, eight percent are hispanic and 38 percent didn’t answer. But Dr. Fegan says those numbers likely don’t tell the whole story.

“I don’t think we have a good handle on what the community prevalence is because we have really not uniformly began testing those under 65, and the majority of people who present with these symptoms to our emergency departments,” Fegan said.

Rogers said having no insurance or poor coverage also plays a role, and as the head of Physicians for National Health Programs, pushes for Medicare For All as a potential solution. 

“It’s difficult to access care because of not being insured, not having healthcare facilities in some neighborhoods, so minorities have been disenfranchised from health care for a variety of reasons over the years,” Rogers said.

Both Dr. Rogers and Dr. Fegan say there are no easy answers, but social distancing and washing your hands are the best things we can all do right now. 

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