Houston, like so many other major U.S. cities, is experiencing the coronavirus pandemic’s disparate impact upon Blacks. According to Texas Medical Center officials, though Blacks comprise roughly 23% of the city’s population, they reflect about 66% of local COVID-19 deaths.
“Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting Black communities disproportionately,” said Dr. Charlene Flash, a nationally recognized infectious disease physician and CEO of Avenue 360 health system.
Flash and Memorial Hermann Hospital infectious disease specialist Dr. Irene Ekaney believe that systemic inequalities, i.e. housing and healthcare discrimination and Black/white wealth gap, are factors that can’t be ignored when discussing the racial disparity and COVID-19.
“The ability to social distance is fraught with privilege,” Flash said. “Having multi-generational families residing together in sometimes small apartments or having extended nuclear families residing together can make it harder to social distance. So too can jobs with no private office or with close quarters.
“For many without the financial reserves, the decision to quarantine or not becomes one of survival,” Flash said. “Do I quarantine or do I make money so I can eat and pay my bills?”
Ekaney said that lack of income and healthcare access help create the preexisting conditions that have made Blacks bigger targets for coronavirus deaths.
“Blacks are more at risk for diabetes, and COVID-19 has impacted that population and those with chronic lung disease,” said Ekaney. “But lack of income, insurance and healthcare follow-up play a part as well.
“This doesn’t mean Blacks are any more at risk than the general population of being infected. The impact is about the severity of infection when Blacks acquire it.”
Flash said the Houston-area region suffers a severe shortage of coronavirus tests, making the virus more difficult to diagnose and treat. Though she readily agrees Blacks have higher rates of obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes, all of which can worsen the impact of COVID-19, Flash cites the lack of a having a primary care doctor where one can access testing as a challenge.
“We hear of people being turned away from public testing sites to self-isolate in their homes with their family members,” Flash said. “Not only are there more deaths among people of color, but the numbers of infections in this community are less likely to be counted accurately [and residents are] likely to have difficulty accessing testing.”
Ekaney believes the challenge, especially for uninsured Blacks, is not lacking access to care, but rather not knowing how or where to find it.
“To some extent, it’s the individuals,” Ekaney said. “If you don’t have access to a primary care physician, you don’t know which path to take to get care. It’s hard to understand what the next step is to get tested.”
For the uninsured, Ekaney suggested contacting the Houston Health Department or visiting one of the county’s free testing sites.
Flash does “not believe insurance, income or lacking employment should be barriers to people receiving quality health care” and suggests people needing quality primary and mental health care use telemedicine options instead of in-person visits, especially those lacking transportation.
Where to go if you have no insurance
Avenue 360 Health & Wellness
Listing of free and low-cost healthcare clinics
Free drive-thru testing sites regardless of symptoms. Call 832-393-4220 for a unique code and instructions on where to go.
Kelsey-Seybold Clinic-Meyerland Plaza
560 Meyerland Plaza Mall
Lone Star Circle of Care at UH
Next Level Urgent Care-Sugar Land
16902 Southwest Freeway
Sunnyside Health Center
Two Houston-area locations now offer free COVID-19 testing. These are rapid “live virus” tests — taking 15 minutes — and results will come back in approximately 24 hours. Those interested must go through an online screening tool via ReadyHarris.org or Walgreens.com to make an appointment.