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COVID-19 Hitting Like a ‘Tornado’ in Minority Communities

Patti Singer

Dr. Angela Branche of the University of Rochester Medical Center, on how COVID-19 affects communities of color.
Video by Patti Singer Media for Minority Reporter Media Group

Information about COVID-19 comes from all directions – media, friends, government.

“If I wasn’t in health care and I was just in the community … I would be wondering who to trust and which information to trust,” said Dr. Angela Branche, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Rochester Medical Center. “It can be confusing and conflicting.”

Dr. Angela Branche of University of Rochester Medical Center during a Zoom news conference. Sign language interpreter is at upper right.

Branche, who is involved in a study of a potential treatment for COVID-19, said COVID-19 is moving like a ‘tornado’ through minority communities. She talked to Minority Reporter about the illness. The conversation has been edited for space and clarity:

What do you bring from your training in HIV/AIDS to research and patient care with COVID-19.

Dealing with an infection that has so much stigma and so much fear surrounding it has prepared me well to communicate with people in general about things that they fear. With COVID, the way it’s unfolded over the last few months, there’s been quite a bit of low level hysteria and misinformation and fears because of misinformation. … Understanding how to communicate with people about something they are so scared of and potentially could impact their lives and their family’s lives has been helpful.

How is misinformation or incomplete information affecting communities of color?

On a national, local and even on personal level with providers, I think we can all improve how we’re communicating why social distancing is important, why we’re asking people to wear a mask when they go outside, why you have to self-quarantine, why businesses will still be closed, how COVID is transmitted within a community, what risks you might have with severe disease. … We’re learning about COVID in real time. Our understanding of how it’s impacting minority communities is new. Learning that, and pivoting with it in a significant enough way that we can get the message out well, I think that’s something we need to work on as a medical community.

How have differences in access to routine health care played out in the COVID-19 pandemic?

A lot of health care these days is preventive medicine. I think that minority populations have health disparities when it comes to things like preventive medicines, getting the right vaccines, making healthy lifestyle choices, having the counseling to do those things. Getting your diabetes under control, getting your diabetes diagnosed in the first place. All these things are evidence of health disparities. COVID-19 is just making that super clear.

Dr. Angela Branche

What is minority representation in the study you’re involved in that’s looking at a possible treatment for COVID-19?

I would say about one-quarter of the people in our study were minorities. … It’s pretty representative of our population here and should be pretty generalizable.

In early May, Blacks made up 38% of people who were ever hospitalized in Rochester hospitals because of COVID-19, and were about 25% of people in intensive care, according to the county health department. Yet Blacks are about 16% of the population. What context can you provide?

It’s not necessarily reflective of my experience with COVID-19 patients. What I think it does reflect is a couple of things. One is exposure. A lot of minority populations are so-called essential workers. They’re working in our grocery stores, they here in the hospital system, providing a lot of support services to the medical center.  …. Exposure is a big part of that. For a myriad of reasons I think minorities are having higher exposure rates.

I also think that minorities, in my experience and I can say this as a minority, tend to live in congregate settings. We live in multigenerational family homes. I was telling my family the other day that I think we sacrificed a lot personally to COVID-19 as I’ve seen it make its way through my family in New Jersey. A lot of that is sons in their 30s getting sick and passing it on to the older father, and the father ends up in ICU. That’s the part that’s not easy to mitigate with rules and regulations.

There may be some part of this where there is a racial predisposition. It’s hard to measure how much race has an impact as opposed to some of these other things — congregate living, exposure rates, health disparities. All those things are playing a role. How much race is contributing on top of that, it’s hard to say. It wouldn’t be completely outside of the box to think there may be some component that is related to race and genetic disposition. We’re seeing that a lot of patients with severe disease have underlying conditions like diabetes, hypertension and heart disease and chronic pulmonary conditions. Those are things that are prevalent in minority communities, particularly diabetes.

What is your advice for getting through COVID-19?

My message is same thing I tell my family, which is that we have to take this seriously as a community. It is moving through minority communities like a tornado and it’s affecting multiple generations of families. Social distancing, and wear a mask when you go out to Family Dollar, not just for yourself but for your mom and your grandmom.

I’m not just thinking about myself, I’m thinking about my family. What I do could affect them. I may be invincible, I’m young … but my mom and dad aren’t. I’m going to go that extra distance and do that ridiculous excessive thing even if I don’t understand all the ins and outs of it. …

And don’t try home remedies. Go to the doctor if you’re feeling sick.