Virginia’s Black, Latino, Native American communities hospitalized for COVID-19 in disproportionate numbers

Malk Lewis

FILE – In this Monday, Oct. 26, 2020 photo, West Brooklyn Community High School principal Malik Lewis stands outside his school after students who showed up for the first day of reopening following a three-week coronavirus shutdown were dismissed in New York. The school was forced to close due to a spike in coronavirus cases in the immediate neighborhood. Although the school can handle up to 58 students under current restrictions, only 17 students showed up Monday. Lewis said many of his students care for younger siblings while their parents work or they have jobs so they’re juggling a lot at once. He said he’s disappointed but not surprised that few students have opted for in-person learning. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens, File)

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The coronavirus pandemic is disproportionately impacting Black, Latino, and Native American communities in the commonwealth of Virginia.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows this is true on a national scale as well. Black, Hispanic, and Native American people are approximately four times more likely to be hospitalized than others when contracting COVID-19.

“There are several contextual, social and cultural factors that are related to that higher rate of COVID-19 infection,” said Sable K. Nelson Dyer, JD, Acting Director of the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) Office of Health Equity. “We know that there are underlying health conditions that communities of color are more likely to have, issues related to those underlying health conditions related to obesity and asthma and things of that nature, which make it more likely for individuals to experience complications as it relates to COVID-19, which would increase those hospitalization rates.”

As of Thursday, Nov. 19, VDH is reporting 13,815 coronavirus hospitalizations. While Nelson Dyer says the Black community accounts for about 29 percent of that group, they represent just 19 percent of the commonwealth’s population. Likewise, the Latino population makes up roughly 25 percent of Virginia’s COVID-19 hospitalizations, but only 9.8 percent of the population. Meanwhile, Nelson Dyer says that the white community accounts for 37 percent of the commonwealth’s coronavirus hospitalizations, but nearly 70 percent of the population.

“When you look at that by race, you can see that, even here in the commonwealth, we have disparities,” Nelson Dyer said. “It’s a combination of factors.”

According to a statement from VDH Public Information Officer Brookie Crawford, the same is true on the local level.

“Chesterfield concurs with the same factors,” Crawford said, “underlying health conditions, nature of occupation and housing.”

Based on VDH information as of Nov. 23, 208 white residents have been hospitalized for the coronavirus, while 156 Black residents and 128 Latino residents have been hospitalized. However, the Black community makes up just 24.5 percent of Chesterfield County’s population, according to census data, while the Hispanic or Latino community constitutes 9.5 percent of the county’s population. Meanwhile, 68.2 percent of Chesterfield County’s residents are white.

Nelson Dyer says those in the black and brown community are more likely to work in occupations that expose them to COVID-19, such as front-line jobs or occupations that do not allow for working at home.

“Even if you adjust for the issues as it’s related to occupation, you also have to think about some of the housing components, as well,” Nelson Dyer said. “Black and brown individuals are more likely to live in multi-generational homes, and when you have individuals who are in those multi-generational households, it’s much more difficult if one individual within that household does contract the virus.”

Nelson Dyer says there is also a historical mistrust of the healthcare system in minority communities, much of which stems from Virginia native Henrietta Lacks, whose cells led to life-saving discoveries, but were also taken without her permission.

“For a lot of black and brown communities, we have Henrietta Lacks-type individuals within our own families,” Nelson Dyer said. “So that historical mistrust, along with the way that we know that discrimination and health inequities show up in the way that black and brown individuals engage with their providers, it reinforces those negative experiences that creates a disincentive for many in the black and brown community to reach out and try to obtain that health care.”

A few days after Virginia experience its first positive COVID-19 infection, VDH convened the COVID-19 Virginia Emergency Support Team (VEST) Health Equity Working Group to apply a health equity lens to the commonwealth’s pandemic response efforts. Nelson Dyer serves as the Chair of the working group, which she says has worked both proactively and reactively to allocate state resources to address unmet needs and gaps that exist in certain communities.

“Equity has been at the forefront of our COVID-19 response,” Nelson Dyer said. “Equity is everyone’s job, and I think that it’s important for allies and everyone across the commonwealth to acknowledge our responsibility in disrupting systems of oppression and addressing inequities when we see them.”

She says there are both short-term and long-term solutions to curb the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 on Black, Latino, and Native American communities. First, it starts with mask-wearing, social distancing, hand-washing and refraining from touching the face.

“Those personal pieces are important, but I also think that it precludes our larger — our state and local governments and our community partners — to address those underlying health issues that COVID-19 has exposed,” Nelson Dyer said. “Because these are long-standing systemic and social inequities that have been highlighted, unfortunately, during this COVID-19 moment.”

Nelson Dyer says inequity issues as they relate to the coronavirus pandemic have sparked discussion of a concept called “weathering.”

“There’s this concept that the pervasive stress that black and brown individuals experience, it lessens their ability to fight infection because it wears down on their immune systems over time,” she said. “Even when you hold the differential determinants of health, when you hold education constant across the races, when you hold wealth attainment, all of those pieces, you can still experience disparities by race. So they’re looking at those specific — how racism and those systemic inequities that have been experienced by generations and are internalized by the individual, and how that can adversely impact health outcomes.”

Nelson Dyer says implicit and explicit bias are real, and it’s important for everyone across the commonwealth to be an ally in fighting coronavirus and its impacts on certain communities.

“The concept of cultural humility speaks to the fact that it’s an ongoing learning process for us to experience and learn about other cultures and to explain and understand how we interact and engage with the rest of the world,” Nelson Dyer said. “So I would just encourage everyone to be intellectually curious, to be respectful, and to embrace other cultures openly.”

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