Dr. John Bolden, an infectious disease doctor at Morris Hospital, said the seriousness of the SARS-CoV-2 virus “hit home” with him when three of his wife’s friends from high school died from COVID-19.
All three lived in the Bolingbrook area, he said, and were African American, in their late 40s and fairly healthy.
Although Bolden’s wife is a nurse, the deaths still came as a shock, he said. One of the deaths came early in the pandemic, when people who were younger were considered to be lower risk for serious complications from the virus.
“You just don’t expect someone in your age group to die,” Bolden said.
A lack of education is a major factor why COVID-19 is hitting minority populations especially hard, Bolden said.
But racism might be another, he said.
“I’ve heard stories of African Americans in New York that went to certain hospitals and were turned down [for care] because their symptoms were not taken seriously,” Bolden said. “There were stories that they had to go to multiple hospitals and were very sick when they were admitted.”
Lack of education also means having lower-paying jobs that can’t be performed remotely. And it often means using public transportation to get to and from work, Bolden said.
Minority workers open, close and clean stores. They work as cashiers, bus drivers and sanitation workers. Even if they get sick, they’re often unable to “call off work” and therefore have “died at a disproportionate rate,” Bolden said.
Many minorities don’t have health care insurance or a primary care physician, but many minorities do have hypertension, asthma or diabetes, “all comorbidities that make people more vulnerable to COVID,” he said.
“They live in crowded housing,” Bolden said. “If one person gets COVID-19, they’re going to spread it to the rest of the people in the family.”
Bolden said many minorities, who already have transportation challenges, often live 10 miles away from a grocery store. And that’s going to hurt them “with or without a doctor,” he said, especially if they have diabetes or hypertension.
“They don’t have access to fresh fruits and vegetables,” Bolden said. “They’re living on substandard food such as fried foods – fried chicken and fried fish – and hamburgers. They also have increased sodium intake.”
Bolden said studies have shown that social distancing, frequent hand-washing and wearing masks reduce the risk of transmitting and catching the virus. He’d like to see better ways of communicating this to at-risk minority groups and making sure they have the tools for practicing them.
But ultimately, the health care system needs an overhaul “to account for these underserved and minority populations so they can gain better access to health care,” he said.
And that’s not “going to be a quick fix,” he said.
Nevertheless, Bolden stressed the coronavirus does not just affect people who are elderly and people who are poor.
“I feel I’m at risk even though I have better health insurance and better knowledge of how to mitigate the risk,” Bolden said.