Health panel examines disparities in COVID-19 pandemic


African Americans and Latinos in California are infected with COVID-19 at rates higher than whites. A major reason for this relates to social determinants of health, a panel of health experts stated Thursday at a UC Davis Health forum broadcast online.

About half of the state’s COVID-19 cases are Latino, yet they account for 35% of the deaths; African Americans make up 6% of the cases and 10% of the deaths, said Olivia Campa, a UC Davis Health assistant clinical professor of internal medicine. The white population, meanwhile, has about 23%  of cases.

The statistics are worrisome but not surprising for health experts, considering the multiple factors that play roles in health inequities. Those disparities long predate the novel coronavirus.

“One of the biggest misunderstandings or myths around health and disease is that health is related to how much insurance you have, or how good your doctor is, or whether or not you smoke 60 packs of cigarettes a day,” said panelist Stacie L. Walton, a medical consultant. “The reality is, your health is mostly connected to your zip code.”

If you live in a neighborhood near oil refineries, Walton said, you’ll have a higher rate of respiratory disease; if you live in a community without access to fresh food, you won’t eat as healthy as people in neighborhoods with grocery stores.

Walton, Campa and a third panelist, Kara Tolles, UC Davis Health assistant clinical professor of emergency medicine, were the featured speakers in a Webex presentation called COVID-19: Addressing Health Disparities in the African American Community. Hosted by the UC Davis Health Office for Health Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, the presentation explained the reasons for health disparities related to COVID-19 and what can be done about them.

Campa praised local public health authorities for a “timely and appropriate response” for providing free testing uninsured patients at multiple sites. But, she noted, not everyone has access to transportation, and buses don’t travel to Cal Expo, Sacramento’s largest testing site.

“There’s a big push to bring testing closer to the patients,” Campa said. That's why Sacramento County this week opened a testing site at St. Paul’s  Missionary Baptist Church in the Oak Park neighborhood, which is open Tuesdays and Fridays.

Many African Americans have been historically distrustful of government institutions due to racism, Walton said, and that has had negative effects on their health.

Tolles lamented that that the COVID-19 scare has caused many patients to stop going to hospitals for emergency care, especially after hospitals preparing for a surge in coronavirus cases urged patients to stay away.

“We told you to stay home so you stayed home, but what we figured out later on, as people were coming back to the emergency department, is that they were staying home and getting sicker,” Tolles said, “not with coronavirus but with other things like heart attacks and surgical appendicitis, and problems with your gall bladder.”

She added, “If you feel you’re having an emergency, please come to the emergency department.”

The two-hour Webex presentation can be viewed on the Facebook page of the UC Davis Health Office for Health Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.