The new coronavirus doesn't discriminate. But physicians in public health and on the front lines said they already can see the emergence of familiar patterns of racial and economic bias in the response to the pandemic.
In one analysis, it appears doctors may be less likely to refer African Americans for testing when they show up for care with signs of infection.
The biotech data firm Rubix Life Sciences, based in Lawrence, Massachusetts, reviewed recent billing information in several states and found that an African American with symptoms like cough and fever was less likely to be given one of the scarce coronavirus tests.
Delays in diagnosis and treatment can be harmful, especially for racial or ethnic minority groups that have higher rates of certain diseases, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and kidney disease. Those chronic illnesses can lead to more severe cases of COVID-19.
In Nashville, three drive-thru testing centers sat empty for weeks because the city couldn't acquire the necessary testing equipment and protective gear like gloves and masks. All of them are in diverse neighborhoods. One is on the campus of Meharry Medical College — a historically black institution.
"There's no doubt that some institutions have the resources and clout to maybe get these materials faster and easier," said Dr. James Hildreth, president of Meharry and an infectious disease specialist.
His school is in the heart of Nashville, where there were no screening centers until this week.
Most of the testing in the region took place at walk-in clinics managed by Vanderbilt University Medical Center, and those are primarily located in historically white areas like Belle Meade and Brentwood, Tennessee.
Hildreth said he has observed no overt bias on the part of healthcare workers and doesn't suspect any. But he said the distribution of testing sites shows a disparity in access to medical care that has long persisted.