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It’s no surprise that COVID-19 is exposing health disparities

April 20, 2020

By Dr. Garth Graham, Vice President, Community Health and Impact, CVS Health and Dr. Oliver T. Brooks, President of the National Medical Association

Despite the heroic efforts of health care professionals across the country, the COVID-19 pandemic has challenged our health care system like never before. It has also made clearer problems that our health care system has been facing for many years, including disparities in potentially deadly conditions based on people’s race and ethnicity.

Based on early data, we are seeing that COVID-19 is impacting African Americans at a disproportionate rate. While African Americans make up 14% of the overall population in Michigan, they account for approximately 33% of COVID-19 cases and 39% of deaths caused by the disease in the state. Black people make up nearly 60% of all COVID-19 deaths in Louisiana and nearly 50% of cases and roughly 60% of deaths in Chicago – both much higher rates than their percentage of the overall population. We are seeing similar results in the Charlotte and Milwaukee areas, both centers of African American communities within their respective states.

The pandemic hitting African Americans harder is not an isolated incident. There is a long history in our country of African Americans facing challenges related to socioeconomic status, education and access to health care. Where someone lives can directly impact their overall health and life expectancy during “normal” times, so in a situation like a pandemic, this issue is multiplied – particularly for higher-risk communities. These social determinants of health play a significant role in the higher rates of common chronic conditions such as asthma, high blood pressure, diabetes and cardiovascular disease in African Americans. Not only is COVID-19 another example of a health issue being seen in this community more frequently than other racial and ethnic groups, but these social determinants and underlying health conditions also make individuals more susceptible to the potentially fatal impact of COVID-19.

While we are facing an unprecedented health challenge, we also have the opportunity to quickly react and do things differently than we have in the past. With that in mind, CVS Health recently opened large-scale, rapid COVID-19 drive-thru testing sites in Georgia, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Working in collaboration with federal and state officials, the test sites will bolster state efforts to manage the spread of the virus and provide on-the-spot test results. Testing at these new sites will be held in large parking lots that are easily accessible and able to accommodate multiple lanes of cars at one time. Rapid COVID-19 testing will be available to eligible individuals who meet criteria established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in addition to state residency and age guidelines.

Even though these sites are intended to increase access to testing for all individuals in these areas, we understand that we need to do more to reach historically underserved communities. Starting at our Atlanta test site, CVS Health will work with the National Medical Association to engage minority physicians regarding the availability of testing in the area. As the nation’s oldest and largest organization of African American physicians, the NMA and its members can help get more African Americans to rapid COVID-19 testing sites, improving access to necessary care during this crucial time. This collaboration can also reinforce the importance of measures that all individuals can take to help prevent the spread of the virus, such as social distancing and proper handwashing.

As we potentially expand testing sites to other locations, we will use a similar strategy with NMA local chapters. We also will engage community partners that we have developed relationships with over many years – such as members of the National Association of Free and Charitable Clinics, as well as churches and faith-based institutions – to raise greater awareness of COVID-19 symptoms and access to testing.

We have seen groups across the health care system come together for the greater good in the past few months, and we have an opportunity to do the same for a population that has always been disproportionately challenged when it comes to health.

By working together, we can flatten the curve and help save lives.

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