This spring, the entire world watched as New York City was the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak. We are eight months in and the virus is cutting an angry swath through the rest of the country. Masks have suddenly become political statements, and corona-fatigue is setting in. As a laboratory technologist, my view is nothing like the patient-facing physicians and nurses that have to deal with the death and dying of patients with COVID-19. My view is on the back end. I see COVID in the hundreds of specimens that come into the laboratory for testing day after day. The volume of samples most labs test on a daily basis is exhausting. In the spring at the beginning of the pandemic, the number of positive cases was staggering. Listening to Governor Cuomo tell us the grim news everyday was depressing. It seemed as if we would never come out of it. But we are an intrepid bunch. New Yorkers made a conscientious effort to beat the virus. We masked up, socially distanced, sanitized everything in sight and went on lockdown. Throughout the summer months, the number of positive cases decreased and New York became a model for other cities to follow. Now, a full eight months later, all 50 states are battling the virus the way we did in the spring. New York is also seeing a resurgence as small outbreaks are spreading across the five boroughs. Each day, across the country hundreds of people continue to die. As we begin to move indoors during the cooler months and as we approach the holidays, now is not the time to backslide. People are tired of wearing masks, and have begun slacking off on the social distancing. Please understand, COVID-19 isn’t leaving anytime soon, so now is not the time to become complacent. If anything, we must do our due diligence to try to beat this infection. COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on communities of color and for us the cost isn’t just physical, it is also financial.
According to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) African Americans make up 12.5% of the population, but account for 22.4% of COVID-19 deaths. Chronic and pre-existing conditions such as asthma, hypertension and diabetes that already exist at higher rates for Black and Brown put us at greater risk for contracting the virus. Also, communities of color tend to be more densely populated therefore making spread of the virus easier in our households. Environmental issues like air pollution put us at increased risk for heart disease, respiratory distress and lung cancer further increasing our susceptibility to the virus. But it is racism and economic inequality that put us at even greater risk.
For starters, Black Americans are more likely to work in front-line/essential occupations like public transportation, child care, truck driving, Postal Service, grocery/convenience stores, social services and health care. One in six frontline workers is Black. Because most frontline workers deal with the public in some capacity, they are literally putting their bodies on the line and risking exposure to COVID-19 more than any other demographic. The physical cost of COVID is worsened further by the deep-rooted issues of race and income inequality that have plagued people of color for generations. African American households tend to have lower incomes, less liquid assets and fewer wage earners. Black workers are paid an average of 73 cents for every dollar made by a white worker. The wage gap doesn’t leave out those with college degrees either. In fact, the income/wealth gap is actually larger among those with college degrees. White families headed by a college degree holder are more likely to have stocks, bonds, mutual funds and other assets. White families also have more access to liquid wealth because of home ownership. Less access to money means less access to the various goods and services or savings that would sustain an income or job loss. Also, lack of health insurance puts Black families at greater risk as lack of insurance benefits may delay receiving necessary medical care until a situation becomes critical or receiving regular medical care that will maintain better health overall.
EPI calculates the rate of job losses among African Americans from February to April at 17.8% compared to 15.5% of whites. Of all the groups studied, Black women fared the worst. Between those same months of February to April, 18.8% of Black women lost jobs as businesses more likely to employ Black workers were shuttered during the lockdown. Black women are almost four times as likely as white women to be single heads of households. In addition to the wage/wealth gap, Black workers are less likely to have paid sick days or the ability to work from home. Higher unemployment rates, lower incomes, lower wages and less liquid assets puts stress on Black households and families. A job loss to a single woman raising children is beyond devastating. This country’s long history of racism has contributed to just about every aspect of Black life in America. It is up to us to protect our families and our communities from the devastation of COVID-19 by doing our best not to get it.
We are now in what appears to be a surge of COVID-19 cases and seasonal influenza. The stress that this will put on hospitals will be enormous. Hospital budgets will feel the strain of nearly a year of managing the care of COVID-19 patients and the continuous testing of patients coming into the hospital for other health care issues. COVID testing is now part of pre-surgical and pre-procedural screening. This is an extra added expense for our health care institutions. Because the symptoms for influenza and COVID are nearly indistinguishable, in order to make a correct diagnosis, both influenza and COVID tests need to be performed. Managing testing supplies and maintaining adequate staffing at a time when many health care workers are already exhausted won’t be easy. Therefore, everyone must play a role in helping to stop the spread of COVID-19 and influenza. But we all have to work together. Here are some things that you can do to help fight COVID-19 and influenza.
• WEAR A MASK. It is that simple. The mask protects you and the people around you. Not wearing one is disrespectful to those around you and to the health care workers fighting this fight.
• Wear the mask properly. Make sure it covers your nose and your mouth.
• COVID-19 spreads via respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs, sneezes, breathes, sings, or talks! Wearing a mask at all times puts a barrier between you and any airborne infected droplets.
• Wash your hands often. Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds particularly after you have been on public transportation or in a public space. If soap and water are not available, use hand sanitizer until soap and water can be used.
• Wash your hands after sneezing or blowing your nose, after using the restroom and before eating or preparing food.
• Always cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when sneezing or coughing. If a tissue is not available, use the inside of your elbow.
• By all means, do not spit.
• Change your toothbrush. The American Dental Association recommends changing your toothbrush every three to four months, but in this COVID-19 climate, changing more frequently isn’t a bad idea.
• Avoid touching your face, eyes, nose and mouth, but if you must, wash your hands before you do.
• Wash your hands after handling your mask.
• Avoid close contact whenever possible. Stay at least two arms lengths or 6 feet from other people.
• Do not wear gloves. Gloves give you a false sense of security to touch things. You are more likely to wash your hands after you have touched something if you are not wearing gloves. Gloves will give you the security of thinking you can touch everything and then touch your steering wheel or your cellphone versus wiping those things down before touching them. Unless you are going to change them often, don’t wear them. Wear gloves if you are caring for a sick loved one, or when you are disinfecting your home or workspace, but not as a rule.
• Clean and disinfect surfaces in your home and your workspace that are touched by multiple people. Doorknobs, table tops, refrigerator and cabinet doors, computer keyboards, cell phones, faucets and sinks.
• Get a flu shot. As of Sept. 1, 2020, anyone exhibiting symptoms of either COVID-19 or influenza will be tested for both. For questions regarding where to obtain a flu shot at little or no cost, call 1-844-NYC-4NYC (1-844-692-4692).
• For questions regarding COVID-19 testing eligibility or access for testing, call the NYS COVID-19 hotline at 1-888-364-3065 or visit the NYS DOH website at https:covid19screening.health.ny.gov
• Recognize the symptoms of COVID-19 and influenza. It is possible to have BOTH COVID-19 and influenza. Flu symptoms often come on suddenly whereas COVID-19 symptoms can be more gradual. Loss of taste and smell as well as shortness of breath and difficulty breathing are more commonly associated with COVID-19. But the symptoms for both often overlap. If you are experiencing any of the symptoms listed below, both a test for COVID-19 and influenza is advised.
–Fever higher than 100 degrees.
If you must gather for the holidays, mask up while inside. Keep gatherings small—10 people or less or limited to just the people you live with. Practice social distancing and if weather permits, spend as much time outside as possible. If you have to travel, get tested and know the results BEFORE you travel. A house full of unmasked loved ones is not the best idea at this time. Not while cases are surging.
Last but not least, don’t neglect your mental health at this challenging time. When possible, set up Zoom or Face Time calls with loved ones. Meditate, take walks, practice yoga. Use online apps to guide you through stretching or breathing exercises to relieve stress. Eat properly, limit alcohol intake and get as much sleep as possible. If you smoke, now is the time to quit. Relax with hobbies if you can and do as much as you can to relax and take your mind off the public health crisis. But stay sanitized, masked up, and aware. It is up to us to protect our homes and our communities.
Kathy Fauntleroy is a clinical microbiology supervisor laboratory technologist.