We don’t need more statistics to tell us that minority groups are in the crosshairs of the COVID-19 pandemic. We have been overwhelmed by reports about the uneven, deadly impact of the coronavirus on both black and other minority communities.
This data comes not just from our largest cities, but also from some of the most rural American states. Although the evidence is helpful in understanding the impact of this virus, what our communities really need is a pragmatic plan to save lives.
To date, more than 80,000 Americans have perished from the coronavirus. If we extrapolate from what has happened in Chicago alone — where black residents are dying of COVID-19 six times as often as their white neighbors — as many as 50,000 of those casualties could end up being people of color.
It is not difficult to understand where these inequities come from. Diabetes and other underlying conditions, combined with disproportionate rates of air pollution in minority communities and unequal access to health care, make COVID-19 especially deadly. Look, for example, at New York, where more than a third of COVID-19 casualties in the state’s largest hospital system had diabetes. Or at Louisiana, where people with diabetes make up 14 percent of the Bayou State, but 41 percent of coronavirus deaths. And because African Americans, especially those who are low-income, already suffer disproportionately high rates of chronic health conditions, they are also more susceptible to the lethal consequences of the coronavirus.
While we continue the long-term fight against diabetes and other underlying conditions that put Americans at high risk for the worst COVID-19 outcomes, there is something that we can and must do immediately to protect communities most in need: Bring testing to them.
Thus far, too many have focused on boosting the availability of COVID-19 tests to “flatten the curve.” But increased testing alone will not be enough to stem this pandemic. That’s because those who are most at risk face prohibitive barriers to health care, and services as simple as testing are no exception.
If you don’t have a car, how can you go to a drive-thru testing site? If you don’t have internet access, how can you learn where the test sites are? The tests might be free, but if you don’t have health insurance, how can you be sure there won’t be additional associated costs? And if you have watched low-wage workers across the country become unemployed by the millions, how can you jeopardize your own job by taking time off work to go get tested? For America’s poor, 76 percent of whom are people of color, the availability of more testing alone will not mitigate these challenges.
This is why we are witnessing more frequent testing in white, affluent communities but more COVID-19 cases and deaths in low-income, minority communities. In Illinois, even though black residents are dying of COVID-19 at more than three times the rate of the state’s white population, white residents are still tested nearly twice as often. This pattern is unacceptable and deeply unjust, and we must act now to make sure it does not endure.
To address the access barriers faced by those at the highest risk, we need to bring testing into underserved communities and meet our most vulnerable where they are. The COVID-19 Testing, Reaching and Contacting Everyone, or TRACE, Act does just that. Introduced earlier this month in the House, the bill would create a $100 billion grant program for mobile testing and door-to-door outreach in the neighborhoods where high chronic disease rates, minority populations and low-income communities overlap.
We have the data to pinpoint who is at the highest risk during this pandemic and to identify the factors that put them at risk. It’s time we put two and two together and bring testing and contact tracing to the communities who need it most.
Being a minority, having a chronic illness or living in the wrong ZIP code should not be a death sentence during this unprecedented public health crisis. We can, and must, do better — not merely through more number-crunching, but by bringing critical resources to those who need them most, for their sake and the sake of our nation.
Rep. Bobby L. Rush is a Democrat representing Illinois’ 1st District. He is a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, where he serves as chairman of the Energy subcommittee and sits on the Health subcommittee. He is the lead sponsor of the COVID-19 Testing, Reaching and Contacting Everyone Act.
Tracey D. Brown, who lives with Type 2 diabetes, is the CEO of the American Diabetes Association, the nation’s largest voluntary health organization, and a global authority on diabetes.