Health

‘We Have Not Done What We Needed To:’ Public Health Expert On Inequities And The Coronavirus

President of the American Medical Association Dr. Patrice Harris spoke to Morning Edition about health inequities for communities of color amid the coronavirus pandemic.
President of the American Medical Association Dr. Patrice Harris spoke to Morning Edition about health inequities for communities of color amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Credit Courtesy of Dr. Patrice Harris

Public health experts are pushing to reduce smoking and vaping in communities of color as part of an effort to reduce risk factors for COVID-19. The president of the American Medical Association told WABE’s Morning Edition this national focus on health disparities is late, but not too late.

“Clearly we have not done what we needed to do to address these health inequities,” Dr. Patrice Harris said.

Smoking can cause underlying health conditions like heart and lung disease and diabetes. But many African Americans and other people of color who happened to smoke already suffer from one or both of those underlying health conditions. And a recent Morehouse School of Medicine study found that Georgia counties with higher percentages of African Americans also have higher COVID-19 rates.

Harris said the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted what happens to communities affected by decades of structural racism and lack of access to healthcare, but the problems aren’t new.

“We need to make sure that we don’t blame people in this as we’re having these conversations,” she said. “Certainly, there are decades of structural racism and other structural determinants of health, such as access to transportation and access to health care.”

But, she said, it’s not too late to have these conversations.

“I know at the American Medical Association we just established a Center for Health Equity, so we plan to lead the conversation after we get through this acute phase,” she said.

According to March hospital data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 3 people who were hospitalized from COVID-19 were African American. African Americans make up 13% of the U.S. population. Meanwhile, out of a sample of 178 patients in the CDC study, nearly 90% had one or more underlying health conditions like obesity or diabetes.

Dr. Harris spoke to “Morning Edition” host Lisa Rayam about how she plans to make sure the medical community prioritizes these issues.

Lily Oppenheimer contributed to this report. 

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