Recently, my kids and I took a trip to Utah to visit some family we haven’t seen in a few years. While there — and after a few games of basketball with siblings in desert heat and dense wildfire smoke — my son had what appeared to be an asthma attack. He was about to pass out, seeing spots, the whole nine. It caught me off guard, because he’s young and healthy, and this attack came with no warning signs. I felt so helpless as the minutes went by and he still couldn’t catch his breath. One of my running thoughts was, “Oh my God, coronavirus season is not the time to have asthma flare-ups.” As a mother, I want to live in a world where I do not have to think about the increased risk of catching COVID — for myself or my child.
Despite what our president says, children can catch the virus, and children who aren’t white are at an even greater risk.
On Sept. 18, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a comprehensive account of COVID-19 pediatric infections and deaths. From February to July, that’s 391,814 infections and 121 deaths nationally in people under the age of 21. Of those, over 75 percent have been Hispanic, Black and/or American Indian youths, even though they represent only 41 percent of the U.S. population, according to the CDC.
In El Paso County, as of this writing, Latino people represent 32 percent of COVID-19 cases, while Black or African American people represent 12 percent. For comparison: Latino people represent 18 percent of the general population and Black or African American represent 7 percent; both are significantly over-represented in COVID-19 cases locally. These disproportionate numbers are true of youths, too. Those under 19 years old represent 20 percent of those Latino cases and 11 percent of the Black and African American cases.
Looking at the COVID-19 cases by location on El Paso County Public Health’s case dashboard, it is easy to see higher infection rates in the more ethnically and racially diverse southeastern parts of the county. These disparities are hard to ignore and hard to disconnect from social determinants of health. Beyond stats and charts, disparities at this level are not accidental nor coincidental. Racism is a public health crisis that has led to widespread health inequities.
Health equity is not the same as equality. It means everyone has a fair and just opportunity to be as healthy as possible. Imagine coming down with COVID-19 and trying to navigate the challenges of job loss, child care, and housing insecurity, along with access to health care or COVID testing in the process. Not everyone gets tested or treated, and not everyone can be socially distant or isolate the same way.
The impacts of health inequity around COVID-19 are a reflection of economic injustice, housing insecurity, food insecurity, limited to no access to health care and mass incarceration. Being a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, Person of Color) is not a risk factor for COVID-19 — systemic racism is. And as the numbers show, this is one more facet of racism from which we need to protect OUR babies. And just because children are less susceptible to the virus, that is not the same as immunity. And I have to ask: Whose children are less susceptible?
Pandemic fatigue has sapped everybody’s energy, but as we enter the season when respiratory illness is most prevalent, now is the worst time to become complacent — especially in light of ongoing wildfires. A Harvard University study found that a small increase in exposure to wildfire smoke leads to a large increase in an area’s COVID-19 death toll.
It is infuriating we have yet to figure out a way to lessen the disease’s spread — and these disproportionate outcomes — in a significant way. As a nation we are on course to double our current death count between now and Jan. 1, according to the University of Washington’s health institute. Meanwhile our legislators are playing partisan politics with the latest coronavirus relief package that people desperately need to survive. I wish we could give people the relief they needed to shut down for 90 days. That would “flatten the curve.”