Health

D.C.-Area Physician Warns of More Coronavirus Deaths for Blacks if Action Not Taken

A pulmonologist in Maryland said if more actions aren’t immediately taken to protect African Americans against the coronavirus pandemic “multiple deaths will continue to occur.”

Dr. Asefa Jejaw Mekonnen, who currently practices pulmonary/sleep medicine in Rockville and is an outspoken advocate against health disparities affecting the African American community, said that newly released data shows that African Americans are being disproportionately affected.

“Very little is being discussed as a solution to protect this vulnerable population,” said Mekonnen, a native of Gondar, Ethiopia. “If action is not taken immediately, we could lose a generation.”

As of Monday, more than 2.4 million people worldwide had been infected with the novel coronavirus, with nearly 170,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.

In the U.S. alone, 770,564 had contracted the virus, with cities such as Chicago, New Orleans, Las Vegas reporting substantial numbers of deaths of African Americans due to COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.

In Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan called the disparity among African Americans “disturbing.” Blacks make up 52 percent of the state’s coronavirus-related deaths, despite only being 31 percent of the its population. In Chicago, 68 percent of the deaths were recorded as African Americans, although that group is only 30 percent of the population.

Mekonnen said that a high number of African Americans are at risk for both exposure and infection because of multiple sociodemographic factors.

“They will do worse once they get the disease due to preexisting chronic medical conditions like hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, asthma and sleep apnea,” he said, adding that more strategies should be put into place for this group beyond social distancing and staying at home.

“Staying at home is a luxury for many low-income and poor families where people have to go to work to make ends meet,” Mekonnen said, pointing out that many African American COVID-19 patients may also have a difficult time accessing a separate bed and bedroom to convalesce at home without infecting family members.

“Domestic spread” is a major threat to many African American families, Mekonnen said. The lung specialist also noted that misinformation circulating among African Americans that they cannot get the virus has been detrimental to the population.

Fueled by the initial absence of coronavirus cases in Africa and the belief that the virus was associated only with foreign travel, many African American websites discounted the danger of the outbreak.

Mekonnen said a strategy needs to be put into place immediately that will include an aggressive social and cultural educational plan that will reach African Americans.

He also recommended:

– A separate makeshift recovery place for COVID-19 patients with high crowding index in the family with provision for medical and social care.

– Differential compensation for high-risk service workers who are risking their lives so that those who can are able to work from home.

– Reducing the risk of exposure to African American families by providing food, mask distribution, etc.

– Testing criteria that recommends that African Americans from poor neighborhoods be made a priority to save the generation.

“We have had multiple deaths in this population, and it is likely to continue if swift action is not taken,” Mekonnen said. He called for urgent action by stakeholders to protect the vulnerable.

Mekonnen, a former pulmonary section head at Suburban Hospital/Johns Hopkins medicine and a consultant intensivist in Critical Care medicine at Shady Grove Adventist Hospital in Gaithersburg, Mekonnen is a partner at Rockville Internal Medicine Group.

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