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A former surgeon general wants this to be the last pandemic that’s worse for black Americans

Former U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher, in an April 17 online town hall.

Dr. David Satcher, former U.S. surgeon general. Credit: screenshot

By Maggie Lee

The health story exposed by COVID-19 is wearily familiar to Dr. David Satcher.

Back when he was U.S. surgeon general from 1998 to 2002, Satcher campaigned to end health “disparities”: all the ways that black Americans suffer worse health than white Americans.

“My impression is that COVID-19 disproportionately impacts African-Americans because cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, a lot of other of these problems also disproportionately impact us,” Satcher said, in an online town hall Friday about African-Americans and COVID-19.

Those conditions Dr. Satcher mentioned all make people more prone to additional serious illnesses.

White people disproportionately have the privilege to live further from polluting industries than black people, or to live closer to grocery stores, or to have health insurance, or to have any number of other health advantages.

As of Monday afternoon, Georgia had counted about 5,000 COVID-19 cases among African-Americans. It had counted 3,700 cases among white people. That’s even though white people far outnumber black people in Georgia. Demographic data is also missing on thousands of cases.

Even work puts black and brown people at higher risk of sickness of now.

Screenshot of Dr. Patrice Harris

Dr. Patrice Harris, president of the American Medical Association. Credit: screenshot

“Many of us have the privilege of working from home, but many folks don’t, and those jobs are over-represented in the black and brown community, so they risk greater exposure and that’s another reason why African-Americans are particularly prone to having the worst consequences,” said Dr. Patrice Harris, president of the American Medical Association.

They were both speaking during an online town hall Friday organized by Atlanta entrepreneur Alicia Ivey and other folks who are working together as Path Forward 2020 to broadcast precise, expert information about the novel coronavirus.

The AMA and other physician groups have asked the federal government to publish data on COVID-19 testing, hospitalization, and mortality data by race, ethnicity, and preferred spoken and written language of patients.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms signed onto a similar letter to President Donald Trump from the African-American Mayors Association.

Atlanta City Council also passed a resolution Monday calling on leaders across government to collect accurate racial data on rates of infection and outcomes, and increase in the number of COVID-19 testing locations in low-income and racial minority communities.

It’s data that’s also needed from prisons and jails, where black and brown people are disproportionately incarcerated. Georgia has started publishing some data on COVID-19 and incarcerated people and staff, but no one is collecting all that systematically nationwide.

The idea is that with clear, up-to-date data, medical resources can be directed in a way to get the greatest and most equitable level of care for all patients.

But in Georgia at least, some of that data is probably never going to be available. Thousands of COVID-19 cases tracked by the Georgia Department of Public health lack information about the patient’s race or preexisting conditions. In a press conference last week, Gov. Brian Kemp said the state needs to and is working on getting better data, and deferred to his top public health doctor for more comment.

Georgia Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey said that the state has never collected the kind of data on certain preexisting conditions that it’s starting to collect now. But Georgia is not looking into the past right now either.

“I think right now our priority is not retrospective but prospective, ensuring that we proactively test, ensure we get fully filled-out demographic information,” Toomey said. “I think the for our staff to go back and find 12,000 individuals and ask them that information is less valuable to us now.”

Physicians like Frank Jones, president of the Atlanta Medical Association, sees another old story repeating itself: fewer African-Americans getting tested than white people who present the same symptoms.

“I have patients that have come in, what I would think would be a patient that would obviously receive testing for COVID because of the symptoms they present with — they don’t get tested,” Dr. Jones said at the town hall.

“Right now we are trying to set up a local drive-through facility … in our community so that our people can get tested, but we’re finding barriers every time we try to set it up,” he said.

Meanwhile, folks at the town hall talked solutions too. Thomas Dortch, chairman of 100 Black Men of America, pledged the support and money of his members and sponsors.

“We need to get a community health fund to buy these mass and distribute these masks freely, we have to do that,” he said.

And a lot of the conversation was about how to get more trustworthy information to more black and brown residents.

The voices of more black doctors and scientists on the TV news would help when COVID-19 is the topic.

And influencers and others sharing good information would help too. (Something actor Idris Elba did about his coronavirus infection, even as false rumors spread that black people couldn’t get the virus.)

Meanwhile, Satcher wants this pandemic to move a boulder he’s been trying to move for years.

“Hopefully out of this will come a new determination on our part and the nation’s part to not only reduce but eliminate disparities in health.”


Path Forward 2020 will hold a COVID-19 town hall on Wednesday, May 22 at 5 p.m. with U.S. Congressman John Lewis. The town halls are free and open to the public. For more information call 404-263-1721 or email pathfoward2020@gmail.com.

This story has been updated to include Atlanta City Council’s Monday resolution.
Maggie Lee

Maggie Lee is a freelance reporter who's been covering Georgia and metro Atlanta government and politics since 2008.


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