Guest blog from the American Institutes for Research (AIR)
Longstanding systemic health and social inequities have put Americans categorized as racial and ethnic minorities at greater risk of getting sick and dying from COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At the same time, Latinos have a history of good health outcomes, some of which contradict the prevailing narrative that race and ethnicity alone largely determine disparities in health outcomes.
|David E. Hayes-Bautista
Q: In California, Latinos make up about 60% of COVID-19 cases and 39% of the population. Does that surprise you at all? How do these data points fit into the overall picture of your research findings?
A: COVID-19, which is a communicable disease, has different patterns than the chronic diseases I’ve mentioned. I cannot sneeze on you and give you a heart attack. I can just breathe on you and give you the coronavirus.
Initially, some attempted to connect higher COVID-19 case and death rates among Latinos to comorbidities, such as obesity and diabetes. Latinos do have higher rates of obesity and diabetes than some other populations, but comorbidities only come into play at the end of a very long trajectory of COVID-19.
The higher COVID-19 rates are connected to the very high work ethic of Latinos and the nature of work that many Latinos do. Latinos are essential workers. For the first two to three months of the pandemic, we took great pains to make sure that nurses and physicians had access to personal protective equipment (PPE). We didn’t even think about farmworkers, construction workers, or food industry workers. The average grocery store checkout clerk probably has 200 to 300 clients pass within arm’s length on an average shift. With no PPE, a person in that occupation is hundreds of times more likely to be exposed to the coronavirus than someone who can stay at home.
|Source: Business Insider
With much more exposure and much less likelihood of knowing they’ve been exposed, it’s not too surprising that Latinos have much higher case and death rates.
Q: What racial and ethnic health disparities should policy and decision makers pay attention to in the next few years, particularly as COVID-19 could have long-term health consequences?
A: Making the connection between Latino communities and the formal medical care system more robust would help. The United States is the only advanced industrial country that does not offer universal access to health care services to all people within its borders. Every other developed country has managed to do so—and they spend less in terms of GDP and per person than we do on health care.
We also have a tremendous physician shortage in the U.S. We have such a lack of Latino physicians in California that it will take all the current medical schools at the current rate of graduation 500 years to make up the shortage for 2015, much less Spanish-speaking physicians. Yet Latino physicians are far more likely to practice in heavily Latino areas and to speak Spanish. This needs to be addressed.
Q: What suggestions do you have for future research on racial and ethnic health disparities?
A: My advice for researchers is to pay attention to the basics—theory, method, and data. The theoretical models we use do not work for a diverse population. They have no predictive power for Latino, Asian, and American Indian populations. We need different theoretical models that can handle the epidemiology of diversity. We don’t know how to handle racial ambiguity because for so long our “science” has been based on the notion of separate, distinct biological races. We need to blow up all of our concepts and start almost de novo.
The mission of the American Institutes for Research (AIR) is to generate and use rigorous evidence in the areas of education, health, international issues and the workforce that contributes to a better, more equitable world.
David E. Hayes-Bautista is an AIR Institute Fellow and Distinguished Professor of Medicine and Director of the Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, in the Division of General Internal Medicine. For over three decades he has researched the Latino Epidemiological Paradox and its implications for populations (infants, maternal, adolescents, immigrants, elderly, farmworkers, undocumented,) chronic diseases (heart, cancer, diabetes, etc.) communicable diseases (HIV-AIDS, Hepatitis A, tuberculosis, etc.) and health behaviors (tobacco use, diet, physical activity, etc.) His research in health services delivery currently focuses on developing metrics for population health that have predictive power with Latino populations, and on developing measures of health disparities that do not rely on the current race/ethnic categories. His earlier work in health services research focused on Latino provider shortages (physician, nurses, dentists,) access to health insurance and access to primary care.
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