WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - In recent days, the fact that African Americans are disproportionately contracting COVID-19 and dying from it has consumed headlines across the country. High risk factors, such as heart disease and diabetes, are cited as the culprit in some cases.
Two African American physicians in Wilmington, however, say people of color have been disproportionately diagnosed with and died from many illnesses for years, long before COVID-19, starting at infancy.
“A lot of the same things that are causing COVID to be more prominent in the African American community has caused heath care disparities for years,” said Dr. Lekeisha Jarrett, a physician with Wilmington Health.
Dr. Khadijia Tribie Reid, a physician at Med North Health Center, says it's an issue that begins at infancy.
“Unfortunately just in North Carolina, we’ve dealt with infant mortality rates — twice as high for African American babies,” said Tribie Reid. “So, babies less than one year old are more than twice as likely to die before the age of one than white babies.”
Jarett and Tribie Reid are both members of a national professional African American women’s organization called Links, Incorporated. They’ve been tasked, as have other physicians in local chapters of the Links organization across the country, to raise awareness about the coronavirus.
In addition to raising awareness, both physicians are on a mission to dispel myths.
One of those myths is that African Americans are predisposed to COVID-19.
“That is absolutely a myth,” Jarrett said. “When COVID first started, actually some people in the African American community were saying we could not get COVID — which is also a myth that has been dispelled, obviously, but there is no genetic predisposition to COVID.”
Jarrett says African Americans are at greater risk of getting the virus because many of them are essential workers who don’t have the option to stay at home.
“So while some of us have the luxury of quarantining at home, a lot of people are on the front lines doing things like working in grocery stores, delivering packages and everyone who comes into those places are not practicing social distancing the way that they should," Jarrett explained.
Another myth: African Americans are more likely to get COVID because of an increase in alcohol, drug and tobacco use.
“I did some research and the amount of alcohol, drug and tobacco use is the same across all races, so that is not one of the things that makes us more likely to COVID," Jarrett said.
Both doctors say health equity, or lack of it, is another issue African Americans face. They say some African Americans simply don’t get the same level of care, regardless, to their socioeconomic background.
Tribie Reid shared a story of a friend’s mother-in-law going in with bilateral pneumonia just four days ago in another state.
“This is a woman who is 64 years old, very well educated, certainly has insurance. She presented to Urgent Care twice and the emergency room, a third presentation before she was actually admitted to the hospital. She presented with fevers as high as 102 and she’s an African American woman, 64 years old,” Tribie Reid said. “She was finally admitted, stayed in the hospital for two days and after two days she was discharged while she still had a fever. Within 24 hours, she was readmitted to the hospital. So when I hear that, I think you have to do all of that to be taken care of. I mean she doesn’t fit anything of those things we described as risk factors.”
Jarrett says the notion that socioeconomic status helps is not always true, not even for famous African Americans.
“When Serena Williams had her child, she had a pulmonary embolism which is a clot in her lungs and she had to really advocate for herself so people would take her pain and her illness seriously," Jarrett said.
Tribie Reid says one of her biggest concerns is that the rush for treatments and a vaccine could be detrimental down the road.
“Usually treatment requires years to develop, now we’re talking about in a matter of months we’re trying out new medications. I think a lot of things are being rushed due to the urgency — the true urgency of the matter, but when we do things differently and we abandon our scientific techniques, sometimes there are consequences.”
Both doctors say they have treated COVID-19 patients. They both agree the coronavirus is not a black disease; it’s not a white one. It’s a virus that’s paralyzed people globally and they say until everyone takes it seriously, we could be in this for the long haul.
“I just want to encourage people to wear their masks in public,” Tribie Reid said. “That is a serious recommendation and everyone universally should be wearing masks out in public.”