Health Disparities Compound COVID-19 Crisis in D.C.

April 9, 2020
By: Victoria Fusco

April is National Minority Health Month! To properly acknowledge this month, it is essential to discuss and recognize the health disparities that minorities face across the nation and right here in Washington D.C.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, health disparities are “differences in health outcomes and their causes among different groups of people.” Reducing these health disparities can create better health for Americans overall. Health disparities are closely tied to social, economic, and environmental disadvantages, which minority groups disproportionately face. These types of factors are known as social determinants of health — the conditions an individual is born into and live and grow in. They include but are not limited to poverty, socioeconomic status, and access to healthcare. 

Nationally, minorities face major health disparities. Racial and ethnic minorities make up one-third of the U.S. population, yet they make up more than half of the 50 million Americans who are uninsured. This can lead to higher rates in preventable hospitalizations, for example, minorities experience rates of preventable hospitalization at a rate two times greater than whites. Black children are two times more likely to be hospitalized and more than four times more likely to die from asthma than whites. These health disparities become even more evident when looking at our nation’s capital. 

Beverley Wheeler, director of D.C. Hunger Solutions, described Washington D.C. as “a tale of two cities”. Washington D.C. is a city that is divided in many ways, including race. Looking at the District by ward, the majority of the population in Wards 1 through 3 are white. These are also the wards with the highest median household incomes, ranging from $108,000 in Ward 1 to $149,000 in Ward 3. In stark contrast, Wards 7 and 8 have the highest concentration of minority populations, the vast majority being African American. In Ward 7, 97.03 percent of the population are minorities. Similarly in Ward 8, 95.84 percent of residents are minorities. Wards 7 and 8 have the lowest grossing median household incomes in Washington D.C., ranging from $36,000 in Ward 8 to $40,000 in Ward 7

Median household income highly correlates with access to food by ward. D.C. Hunger Solutions conducted a review in 2016 analyzing the number of full-service grocery stores in each of Washington D.C.’s wards. The review illustrated the vast disparity in access to healthy food for residents in lower income wards. In Wards 1, 2, and 3, there was is an average of eight full service grocery stores. In comparison, there were only two full service grocery stores in Ward 7 and just one in Ward 8. This means that residents of Wards 7 and 8 must travel further to the grocery store, which increases transportation costs and takes a longer time. Consequently, many of these residents rely on corner and convenience stores, which often lack nutritious foods and can be harmful to upward socioeconomic mobility

The report also shows that 1 in 7 households in Washington D.C. experience food insecurity. Lack of access to healthy foods can lead to poor health outcomes. For example, residents of Ward 8 are two times more likely to be obese than residents living in other wards in the District. In addition, the Rodham Institute at George Washington University found that D.C.’s poorest residents (who typically live in Wards 7 and 8) are three times more likely to report having a heart attack.

It is important to recognize that these disparities exist all around us, and we must take action to reduce them, especially during this pandemic. As the coronavirus continues to plague communities across the U.S., there is a growing demand for demographic data on race and ethnicity. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law and over 400 medical professionals have demanded that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services provide daily racial and ethnic demographic reports of COVID-19 tests, cases, and outcomes. The group argued that the absence of data is essentially denial of appropriate care, especially as research begins to show that African Americans are disproportionately affected by COVID-19

This is evident in the District, where a breakdown of data by race shows that the deaths from COVID-19 are disproportionately black residents. Fourteen of Washington D.C.’s COVID-19 related deaths have been black residents, making up 58 percent of the total fatalities.  Wards 7 and 8 lack a full-service hospital providing ready and reliable access to healthcare, which is critical in this COVID-19 crisis. COVID-19 is making health disparities more apparent as more vulnerable populations become infected.