Top Penn administrators discussed how racial inequities in the United States healthcare system have been exacerbated by COVID-19 at a virtual event on Wednesday evening.
The event, titled "Racism and Anti-racism in Contemporary America: The Public Health System" was the fifth event of a 13-part interdisciplinary conversation on the causes and consequences of racism in different academic fields. Panelists, including Vice Provost of Global Initiatives Ezekiel Emanuel, and Chief Wellness Officer Benoit Dubé, addressed the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on communities of color, as well as racial inequity in COVID-19 vaccine distribution.
"In current hospitalization, African Americans and Hispanics are three and a half to four times more likely to be hospitalized than white patients and about 2.4 times more likely to die as a result of it," Emanuel, who recently served on Joe Biden's Transition COVID-19 Advisory Board, said. "It's not just about the disparity in healthcare and access to doctors and the hospital but also other factors that lead to [differences in] life expectancy."
These communities that are suffering the most from COVID-19 also have lower vaccination rates due to problems of access and distrust in the medical system.
Assistant professor of emergency medicine at the Perelman School of Medicine Eugenia South said vaccine distribution in Pennsylvania has not been equitable, as white people have received 91% of all vaccinations despite being only 80% of the population.
At Penn Medicine, about 70% of eligible white employees have received a COVID-19 vaccine compared to 30% of eligible Black employees, South added. This disparity is caused by medical mistrust among Black people due to a long history of discriminatory medical practices, South said.
"This is incredibly alarming that the communities that the people that are hit the hardest by COVID-19 right now are the ones least likely to be getting vaccinated," South said. "As an institution at Penn, we have to really understand the impact of racism on our lives, the lives of our employees, our trainees, and our students, and how it's something that's very real inside of our own walls."
South and Emanuel said the Biden administration's COVID-19 strategy, drafted with guidance from the recently appointed health equity task force director, will help combat the medical and social impacts of the pandemic on communities of color. One of the document's seven goals is to protect those most at risk and advance equity, including across racial, ethnic and rural/urban lines.
Emanuel, who informed Biden's approach to handling the pandemic during the transition, praised the new administration for focusing on equity in healthcare.
Still, the Biden administration must earn the trust of the public before they can make notable progress in health equity, School of Social Policy & Practice Professor of Health Equity, Economics, and Policy Jennifer Prah Ruger said.
Emanuel said that in order to restore trust in the healthcare system and overcome vaccine hesitancy among Black and Hispanic individuals, there must be an emphasis on education and
getting people with whom they can identify to take the vaccine and encourage others to do the same.
Dubé added that the next steps for the government should include promoting education, legislation, and conversation surrounding universal healthcare.
"You shouldn't go bankrupt because you get sick," Dubé said. "We need to still look to healthcare as a basic human right."
The event, sponsored by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Paideia Program and the Office of the Vice President for Social Equity and Community, is one of the New Student Orientation preceptorials offered to first-year students this academic year. The conversation, which was moderated by SNF Paideia Program Faculty Director Michael Delli Carpini, was open to the public to participate and learn from the dialogue.