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Senate Democrats Call On Congress To Fix Racial Disparities In Health Care

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., ranking member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, issued a report on racial disparities and COVID-19 calling for congressional action.
Zach Gibson
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Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., ranking member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, issued a report on racial disparities and COVID-19 calling for congressional action.

The disproportionate harm people of color have suffered during the COVID-19 pandemic serves as an "appalling reminder of the deep inequities" of the American health care system and demands congressional remedies, according to a new Senate committee report.

The report cites research showing that Black people are dying from COVID-19 at 3.4 times the rate of white people, when adjusted for age. It notes that COVID-19 accounts for 1 in 5 deaths among Latinos. And American Indian or Alaska Native patients are hospitalized at more than four times the rate of white people, according to the analysis undertaken by Democrats on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP).

The report identifies steps Congress can take to address the lopsided harm, including focusing relief spending and pandemic-related public health initiatives on Black, Latino and Native Americans.

"The pandemic has just opened up a glaring wound in the health care system of our country," says the committee's ranking member, Sen.Patty Murray, D-Wash. People of color, she says, are "hit harder, mortality rates are higher, and they do not have access to health care so they can't get the medical support they need."

The report echoes previous studies by health experts that revealed how the pandemic sickens and kills Black, Latino and Native Americans at higher rates than whites.

It includes stories of individual Americans affected by the pandemic. For example, Aviva is a Black eighth grade teacher who was sick for almost 30 days with COVID-19 and did not fully recover for another month. Even now she still suffers respiratory symptoms.

Edgardo's father, a Latino meatpacking plant worker, was diagnosed with COVID-19 in April. Within days, his mother and teenage sister were also infected. His father was hospitalized and intubated and spent 10 days on a ventilator in an induced coma.

Language barriers made it difficult for Edgardo's parents to understand the treatment. Now, four months after his hospital stay, Edgardo's father is slowly returning to work but faces lingering physical and mental health effects. More than 1,000 employees at the meatpacking plant where he works have been infected, and some have died.

The report examines factors that contribute to unequal health outcomes, including historic exploitation of communities of color, segregation, discrimination and bias within the health care system.

As a result, Murray says there is "mistrust from communities of color" who don't access medical care as often as they might.

Murray says Congress needs to pass relief funding for communities of color and expand testing and contact tracing among them. Congress also needs to develop a clear plan for equitably distributing a vaccine when one becomes available.

As of now, she says, there is no comprehensive plan for vaccine distribution.

"If we leave out focusing on communities of color, this virus will continue to spread rapidly throughout all of our communities and will not be contained," Murray says.

Dr. Melissa Simon, professor of clinical gynecology at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University, who was interviewed in the report, is critical of pharmaceutical companies in the process of developing vaccines for "not taking the time required to engage communities, especially Black, Latinx and Indigenous communities hit hardest by COVID-19 in incidence and mortality and engaging them in discussions about vaccine trials, and the risks and benefits."

Simon's research focuses on health disparities among low-income, medically underserved women.

"We scientists and health care providers have earned the distrust of patients of color from long-standing experiences of racism in research and health care delivery" she says, citing forced participation in research without patient consent.

The current political climate is creating even more distrust in public health and medicine, Simon says, especially since the most basic preventive measure, mask wearing, has not carried a "consistent clear message."

Since the virus is hitting communities of color so hard, Murray says, we actually "have to overreact and make sure we've got the supplies, resources, equipment, information and foundational support in communities of color in order to stop the spread."

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Award-winning journalist Patti Neighmond is NPR's health policy correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.