By Aldon Thomas Stiles, California Black Media
Last week Dr. Cameron Webb, the White House COVID-19 Response Team’s Senior Policy Advisor for Equity, discussed with California Black Media (CBM) the importance of fairness in the country’s fight against COVID. He complimented California’s pandemic response model.
“There has been a great model in California, which has always been a leader in some of these equitable initiatives,” Webb said.
He praised the work of Deputy Director for the California Department of Public Heath’s (CDPH) Office of Health Equity Dr. Rohan C. Radhakrishna.
“Some of the work they’ve been doing on data collection in California had them tracking [COVID-19] across demographics in preparing to respond to the need. Without having the data, without knowing what the problems are, you can’t find the solution.” Webb said.
California was among the first states to start tracking racial data to determine why the disease, based on early infection patterns, was disproportionately impacting Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans. Although the rate of infections by race narrowed over time, the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and California Department of Health data still show higher COVID death rates for African Americans than the general population.
The COVID-19 death rate is 15% higher for Black Californians than the statewide average. Nationally African Americans, who account for 12 % of the country’s population, they make up about 14% of COVID-19 related deaths.
According to Webb, inequity in health care is one of the many challenges that need to be addressed as the country pushes to end the pandemic.
“Just to address it head on, we have an inequitable health care system,” Webb told CBM. “We have a health care system that does not serve all communities in a way that’s fair and that is rooted in systemic and structural dynamics that are themselves inequitable. We have inequitable risk factors, social risk, within communities.”
Webb said that the racial disparities that Americans have been struggling with during the COVID-19 pandemic continues to expose deeper, systemic problems.
“COVID-19 really just highlights those inherent inequities and it makes it much more urgent, I would say, for some folks to find a strategy and solution,” Webb said.
During our interview, Webb provided an update on the state of the Black community during this pandemic.
“If you go back to 2021, back in late August, you actually saw that the rate of cases in the Black community was lower than the rate of cases in the White community,” Webb said.
“And that was all through September, all through October, and through most of November until the very end of November when Omicron started to surge. That’s when we saw the case rate jump up again in Black communities to be where it is now which is at 1.6 times the White case rate,” he pointed out.
Webb said that vaccination rates in the Black community are improving.
“In the earliest days of the vaccination effort, we saw pretty wide gaps emerge between White adults and Black adults. But by September of 2021, those rates were equivalent,” he said.
Webb pointed out that his team found that local communities around the country are taking steps to address racial disparities, too. However, challenges remain.
“We still see some gaps in who has been boosted. We see some gaps in pediatric vaccination rates. We need to apply the same strategies that got our adult vaccination rates up to get kids vaccinated, and also to get more folks boosted,” he said. “We’re seeing communities take the lead on that, and we are being as supportive as we can from the federal side because we know that it works.”
According to Webb, income inequality, housing instability, food insecurity, and educational inequity all correlate with health outcomes.
All of those factors, he said, contributed to communities of color facing disproportionate challenges during the pandemic.
“They leave a significantly higher burden of chronic illness in communities of color which leads to higher risk of poor outcomes with COVID-19,” Webb said.
Lastly, Webb described the White House’s approach to inequity in health care.
“We can’t solve all of the challenges that have developed in our society, in terms of structural inequity since 1619, but what we can say in the short term: ‘what are the acute needs that we can address in a way that we can create workarounds to get more resources to the Black community and other hardest-hit communities; what are the medium term fixes that we need to offer to make sure these communities are more protected; and, finally, how do we change this system so that 5 to 10 years from now, my kids are not saying we have an inequitable health care system,'” Webb emphasized.
California Black Media’s coverage of COVID-19 is supported by the California Health Care Foundation.