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St. Louis Health Disparities Have African Americans Especially Fearful Of Coronavirus

Carla Harris takes medication for Diabetes and heart palpitations. Like Many African Americans, she's concerned that her pre-existing condition makes her more susceptible to COVID-19., May 18, 2020
David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio
Carla Harris takes medication for diabetes and heart palpitations. Her husband has bronchitis. Like many African Americans, she worries that their pre-existing conditions make them more susceptible to COVID-19.

Carla Harris sent her 15-year-old daughter to stay with a family member in St. Louis County several weeks ago. Harris is a certified nurse assistant and patient care technician who works in a St. Louis-area hospital. Her husband works in a nursing facility. 

Like many African Americans with pre-existing health conditions, they worry that they're vulnerable to the coronavirus, which has disproportionately hit black communities in the region. She lives with diabetes and takes medication for heart palpitations, and he has bronchitis. Harris said they know quite a few people who have lost a loved one to COVID-19.

“I had a friend, you know, she just lost her daughter, she tested positive,” Harris said. “Then she tested again negative, and they said she was clear, and then she had an asthma attack one day and come to find out she was positive for the COVID, still.”

Harris and her husband live in north St. Louis. They’re worried because they know that African Americans make up more than 60% of all confirmed coronavirus cases in the city and about 70% of coronavirus deaths. They go to work every day fearful they could catch the virus.

“No one wants to quit their job, you know, these patients do have to be taken care of, regardless of what's going on, somebody's got to take care of them,” Harris said. “But at the same time, it's like you're playing Russian roulette with your own life.”

For many African Americans, seeing the coronavirus hit their communitiy is a painful reminder of the region’s health and economic disparities. COVID-19 has affected family members, neighbors, loved ones and friends.

Black people have long had less access to health care, jobs and education than many of their white counterparts. African Americans also have a higher prevalence of pre-existing health conditions.

Inequality and discrimination have made black people sick, said Rob Gatter, a St. Louis University School of Law professor who teaches at the school's center for health law.

“It’s poverty, it’s underlying poor health,” Gatter said. “It’s living in a ZIP code that’s a bit of a desert when it comes to transportation to get to health care services or to get to good food, to get to a safe neighborhood where you could possibly exercise.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people with underlying health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and asthma are at higher risk of contracting a serious illness from the coronavirus.

Data from the National Institutes of Health indicate African Americans are twice as likely as white Americans to develop Type 2 diabetes. Black people are three times as likely to die from asthma-related causes as white people, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Gwenetta Dickerson lost her job in April. She was diagnosed with sickle cell anemia five years ago. The disease disproportionately affects African Americans. May 17, 2020
Credit Chad Davis | St. Louis Public Radio
Gwenetta Dickerson lost her job in April. She was diagnosed with sickle cell disease five years ago. The disease disproportionately affects African Americans.

Rising unemployment contributes to those fears. While the unemployment rate for white Americans stands at 14.2%, African American unemployment jumped to 16.7% in April. And because many people have health insurance through their employers, losing a job can mean losing coverage.

Black people in the St. Louis region worry that they can’t afford basic needs like rent, food and health care.

Gwenetta Dickerson lost her St. Louis job as a massage therapist in April. She said without a full-time job, paying rent will be difficult.

“They still want their rent on the first and after the fifth it’s late, so they don't really care that COVID is happening,” Dickerson said.

Dickerson was diagnosed with the sickle cell trait at birth but learned she had the sickle cell disease five years ago. The disease, which affects many African Americans, creates abnormally shaped red blood cells in the body. That can lead to anemia and stroke, but it also damages the spleen, which can lead to a weakened immune system.

With that in mind, Dickerson said as the region begins to restart, she’ll have to stay home.

“My antibodies aren't as prone to fight like the healthy human, you know what I mean?” Dickerson asked. “So, with just a common cold, here comes pneumonia, which it turns into for me, or something worse.”

Health officials point to how much the region needs to ensure that African Americans receive quality health care. Dr. Fred Echols, St. Louis health director, said after the crisis, leaders must address those issues.

“Heart disease, diabetes, asthma will continue to have a greater impact on these disenfranchised populations more so than others,” Echols said. “As we move forward, it’s really important for us to have the right people around the table but also engage them in a way that gives them a charge to address a lot of these issues.”

While officials consider how to put the region back on track, Harris and others who live with caution say they have to be extra careful.

Follow Chad on Twitter: @iamcdavis

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Chad is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.