During the first week of February – Black History Month – the Los Angeles County Public Health Department reported 4,952 new COVID-19 cases among African-Americans. The county also recorded 45 deaths among Blacks since the previous week (up by four souls). Although more than 2,250 Black county residents, 12 and older, were vaccinated that same week, the pandemic’s impact on the community has pulled back the curtain on a real, historical problem: Health disparity.
A new report by Measure of America shows that Black Californians have the second worst health outcomes of all major racial and ethnic groups, with a life expectancy nearly seven years less than the state average and drastic health inequities including:
• Black Californians are the only racial demographic group with homicide as a leading cause of death. The gun homicide rate of Black Californians – 15.6 deaths per 100,000 residents – is 12 times the rate of White Californians.
• Nearly half of Black adults in California have been diagnosed with high blood pressure.
• Black women have the highest maternal mortality rate in the state of California, about four times the White maternal mortality rate.
“A Portrait of California 2021-2022: Human Development and Housing Justice” is the third study in a decade-long series which offers statistics and analysis of how Californians are doing in health, education, and earnings broken down by race, gender, and location.
The report acknowledges that the pandemic has hit everyone hard, “But it is the Californians who were already struggling—to keep up with schoolwork, to make ends meet, to cope with chronic health issues—who have suffered the most severely. The pandemic and its attendant impact on education, economic security, and health hit Black and Brown communities the hardest, exacerbating existing inequalities in ways that will have a reverberating impact on well-being for years to come.”
According to the study, Black Californians’ life expectancy (74.1 years) decreased by a concerning 1.5 years between 2012 and 2019, and has no doubt fallen further due to the pandemic.
The study, available at https://measureofamerica.org/, also says that the neighborhoods at the bottom of its life expectancies list tend to have a relatively higher proportion of Black or Latino residents, highlighting the negative impact of residential segregation on health outcomes.
Dr. Cameron Webb, the White House COVID-19 Response Team’s Senior Policy Advisor for Equity, discussed with California Black Media (CBM) the importance of fairness in the country’s fight against COVID.
“There has been a great model in California, which has always been a leader in some of these equitable initiatives,” Webb said. “Some of the work they’ve been doing on data collection in California had them tracking [COVID-19] across demographics in preparing to respond to the need. Without having the data, without knowing what the problems are, you can’t find the solution.”
California was among the first states to start tracking racial data to determine why the disease, based on early infection patterns, was disproportionately impacting Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans. Although the rate of infections by race narrowed over time, the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and California Department of Health data still show higher COVID death rates for African-Americans than the general population.
The COVID-19 death rate is 15 percent higher for Black Californians than the statewide average. Nationally, African-Americans, who account for 12 percent of the country’s population, comprise about 14 percent of COVID-19 related deaths.
According to Webb, inequity in health care is one of the many challenges that need to be addressed as the country pushes to end the pandemic.
“Just to address it head on, we have an inequitable health care system,” Webb told CBM. “We have a health care system that does not serve all communities in a way that’s fair and that is rooted in systemic and structural dynamics that are themselves inequitable. We have inequitable risk factors, social risk, within communities.”
Local communities around the country are taking steps to address racial disparities. According to Webb, income inequality, housing instability, food insecurity, and educational inequity all correlate with health outcomes. In South L.A., a focal point is Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science (CDU), which is dedicated to teaching health professionals who are working to make a difference in closing the healthcare gap in communities of color while bringing awareness to the health disparities there.
An institution which many refer to as the HBCU of the west, CDU is federally defined as a historically Black graduate institution. It is currently expanding its programs to serve the community.
“This takes us all the way back to our origin story,” said Dr. David M. Carlisle, CEO and president at CDU. “We were created, envisioned and placed where we are to address the historical, economical disparities that led to the Watts uprising of 1965. It’s all about being intentional and deliberate about addressing health disparities plaguing our community.”
A board-certified Internal Medicine specialist, Carlisle’s clinical work has always revolved around caring for the underserved. Carlisle said the CDU medical students are also motivated in their desire to improve the health of the community where they grew up.
The school is looking forward to expanding undergraduate programs, completing construction of additional buildings and admitting additional future doctors and nurses, all to fulfill its mission to provide better health to the community and impact the educational and economic opportunities in the area. It is constructing a new, four-year medical degree program which will benefit the state by increasing the number of Black and Latino medical graduates joining the healthcare workforce, with the first class slated to begin in Fall 2023.
“Look at the pipeline in diversity,” Carlisle said. “The biggest leak occurs in college. Students become academic casualties.”
CDU became involved in the pandemic early on, when the county’s Department of Public Health invited the university to be a testing site. Students went out into the community – to shopping centers and corner strip malls – to talk to residents.
“We went to doing a hundred tests a day to over a thousand in a day,” Carlisle said, noting that the school is a trusted venue in the community. In the summer of 2020, they tested more than 80,000 residents. “We drove down all sorts of barriers, all sorts of reluctance. Now, we’re encouraging people to get vaccinated against covid. We have mobile vaccination centers to do just that.”
Last year, CDU received funding from the State of California, along with several grants and a donation from Michael Bloomberg to address the community’s health and economic disparity issues.
Carlisle said that Sunday’s Super Bowl and its halftime show proved just how important South LA is to California and the entire U.S.
“If we want to improve the health of our entire society, the place to begin is where health is worst, where people are challenged, if you want to make a change,” he said. “This community is the most underserved, least advantaged of any community that you will find especially in terms of population and it is an honor and a privilege to serve the community of South LA.”