It’s often said that disease doesn’t discriminate—it’s an “equal opportunity offender,” as one recent article put it. Illnesses don’t care about where you’re from, what neighborhood you live in, what you believe or the values you embrace.
Indeed, we’ve seen COVID-19 fall across equal opportunity lines in that it’s affected male and female alike, people from every generation, and of every ethnicity. The one thing constant across nearly every demographic—has been comorbidity.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity—all put people at higher risk of complications related to COVID-19.
For patients with comorbid conditions, which can decrease their ability to fight infection and further compromise weakened lungs with acute respiratory distress syndrome or a heart with cardiomyopathy, the layering on of COVID-19’s impact can be fatal. The New York State Health Department, in the epicenter of the pandemic, reported that comorbidities have proven the rule in coronavirus-related cases, with 86% of reported COVID-19 deaths reporting at least one comorbidity.
While common comorbid health issues may not discriminate in and of themselves, they directly correlate to the socio-economic disparities faced by people of color all across America. And as we watch COVID-19 play out in cities and communities of every size, these disparities are coming into sharp contrast. But seeing the effects is only the second half of the equation—the first half is seeing where they come from.
In times of COVID or otherwise, the single greatest barrier to better health across all populations is access to care—whether that’s to information and resources that lend themselves to health literacy, or to points of care, physical and digital, that enable people to engage the expertise and next steps they need for effective treatment regimens.
For Memorial Hermann, encouraging and providing that access includes a robust community benefits program with more than $588 million invested directly in the community annually. This includes expanding outreach and resources via school-based clinics and local partnerships that help people learn more about nutrition and find fresh meals, that teach people to think of exercise as medicine and encourage them to be more active, and that raise awareness about people’s whole health—mental and emotional, as well as physical.
It means building a telehealth infrastructure that enables remote monitoring, virtual visits and targeted information for patients through a mobile device. It also includes prioritizing and continuously updating educational content on our public-facing website and social media channels, furnishing people with essential and factual information—in the case of COVID-19, information to help them understand the disease process, how it evolves over time, and what measures they can take to keep themselves safe.
Yet, even digital content, widely believed to be the most ubiquitous today, can be its own barrier. According to recent Federal Communications Commission figures, approximately 25 million Americans lack access to a broadband connection, though some say that number is even higher. For many populations, that means the best thing we can do is meet them where they are, providing better access to healthier choices and giving neighborhoods as many points of access as we can.
This meet-people-where-they-are approach may prove more critical than ever on the other side of COVID-19 as we’ve learned hard lessons about how mass mobility correlates to the potential for spread. And it will prove most effective when all facets of the community come together to make it happen—not just healthcare systems, but government entities, private companies, not-for-profit partners and beyond.
From New York to Georgia, Michigan and Illinois and across emergent hot spots in this current pandemic, we see minority populations suffering disproportionate death tolls. It’s time now, more than ever before, to stop and look at where we are as a nation. And to decide once and for all whether we want to come out of this crisis stronger—and healthier—than before.