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CANO-SANTIAGO: The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbates existing disparities in healthcare for the Latinx community

The hesitance from Latinx communities regarding the COVID-19 vaccine are a symptom of systemic healthcare disparities

As we enter the last few months before a widely distributed vaccine becomes available, we must pay special attention and care to underserved minority communities.
As we enter the last few months before a widely distributed vaccine becomes available, we must pay special attention and care to underserved minority communities.

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Despite the recent announcement of two FDA approved vaccines intended to combat the sixth strain of SARS-CoV-2, the pandemic rages on. As recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, healthcare workers are first priority in receiving the vaccine. They are followed by elderly residents of nursing homes and care facilities — and, finally, to the general populace by each state’s discretion. The Commonwealth of Virginia has received 1,232,350 doses of the Pfizer vaccine. Here in Charlottesville, distribution to healthcare workers, some essential workers and those above the age of 75 has already commenced. While this process is carried out — bringing hope to the nation as a whole — minority groups who have been disproportionately affected by this pandemic continue to face the repercussions of COVID-19. This includes the exacerbation of existing disparities in healthcare coverage and the increased risk of contact with the virus. This is especially true for the Latinx community — the largest growing minority group in the United States and here in Virginia. With the existing racial equity data in Virginia, we see that Latinx and Black people constitute one-third of healthcare workers but 17 percent of COVID-19 vaccinations compared to 71 percent of their white counterparts. Addressing these disparities is dire, especially if the vaccine does not become readily available until early summer.

Systemic racism is a public health issue — when it comes to healthcare coverage, minority communities often fall through the cracks. Nationally and locally, the Latinx community has been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. In central Virginia, Latinx people account for 7 percent of the population, but 25 percent of COVID-19 cases. This is likely the result of several factors. The Latinx community is often faced with barriers to affordable and accessible healthcare including the social determinants of health which the CDC has outlined. These include having access to quality education and economic stability. Moreover, the ability to work from home is a privilege that is not afforded to 83.8 percent of the Latinx community in the U.S. This includes the overwhelmingly high percentage of Latinx essential workers. 

People of Latinx identity are also three times more likely to contract COVID-19 and four times more likely to be hospitalized by COVID-19 than their white counterparts. The Latinx community and the Native American community are the least insured racial groups in the nation, at 27 percent and 30 percent uninsured respectively. The Latinx community often exhibits higher rates of pre-existing health conditions which can increase the severity of COVID-19 symptoms. Finally, one study found only 34 percent of Latinx people trust vaccine safety. The statistics are overwhelming— as a society, we must contend with our nation’s long history of medical racism that has caused this mistrust in the medical system. 

We must commit to protecting and ensuring quality of life, not just for the wealthy, and not just for certain racial groups. Likewise, the medical community must work to undo the history of systemic racism and begin or continue to reconcile with minority communities, especially when it pertains to vaccination. The American Medical Association identified 13 contributing factors to racial inequality in medicine, including anti-immigration policies and rhetoric which directly affects the Latinx community. Medical professionals can more widely expand on their approach to care and treatment as some have begun to do, dismantling the strictly Eurocentric approach to medicine. Finally, they must recognize that minority communities can benefit from a culturally sensitive approach to healthcare which can help build much needed trust. 

Healthcare must likewise be approached from multiple facets, including working to decrease food insecurity and increase access to affordable housing. The AMA lists strategies to help combat these disparities for healthcare professionals and communities at large. One solution includes increasing or expanding on access to public health programs for the Latinx community in a culturally relevant fashion. In regards to the COVID-19 pandemic, there are short-term solutions, including providing free testing to minority communities. Further, minority communities hit hardest by the pandemic should follow frontline workers, the elderly and essential workers in access to the vaccine. To combat mistrust regarding the vaccine, minority communities should be allowed to partake in discussion and share their concerns. Finally, Health Affairs Journal proposes the CDC create and track demographic data on vaccine distribution to ensure equity in vaccine distribution despite racial or economic differences. Currently, Virginia is lagging in collecting demographic data on COVID-19 vaccinations.

As we enter the last few months before a widely distributed vaccine becomes available, we must pay special attention and care to underserved minority communities. In preventing a future pandemic, we must recognize that healthcare in this country is not created equal, nor is it equally distributed. Nationally, the government must commit to increasing accessibility to healthcare for communities who may not otherwise have access to these resources. Locally, there are methods to help bridge the gap in accessible healthcare between the Latinx community with others. This includes strengthening partnerships with and investing in organizations that serve the Latinx community and know their direct needs. 

The Charlottesville community must rally behind local organizations like Sin Barreras and UVA Latino Health Initiative who have committed themselves to improving the lives of those in the Latinx community. However, funds are often tight. We can better support the Latinx community on any level. This includes through funding. However, in a time of great financial stress following the holidays or the overall economic conditions, supporting the community can look different. Volunteer for these organizations, or even educate your family on the racial disparity in this country. Likewise, the University can help build trust with minority communities like the Latinx community by helping to provide further resources for these organizations. While Virginia places further COVID-19 restrictions, it is ultimately our own actions which have the potential to hurt or to better the lives of others.

Yssis Cano-Santiago is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at opinion@cavalierdaily.com.

The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Cavalier Daily. Columns represent the views of the authors alone.

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