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A Race-Free Approach to Diagnosing Chronic Kidney Disease

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A black woman looking off-screen. Anatomical kidneys appear next to her
Credit: True Touch Lifestyle; crystal light/Shutterstock

Race has a long and tortured history in America. Though great strides have been made through the work of leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to build an equal and just society for all, we still have more work to do, as race continues to factor into American life where it shouldn’t. A medical case in point is a common diagnostic tool for chronic kidney disease (CKD), a condition that affects one in seven American adults and causes a gradual weakening of the kidneys that, for some, will lead to renal failure.

The diagnostic tool is a medical algorithm called estimated glomerular filtration rate (eGFR). It involves getting a blood test that measures how well the kidneys filter out a common waste product from the blood and adding in other personal factors to score how well a person’s kidneys are working. Among those factors is whether a person is Black. However, race is a complicated construct that incorporates components that go well beyond biological and genetic factors to social and cultural issues. The concern is that by lumping together Black people, the algorithm lacks diagnostic precision for individuals and could contribute to racial disparities in healthcare delivery—or even runs the risk of reifying race in a way that suggests more biological significance than it deserves.

That’s why I was pleased recently to see the results of two NIH-supported studies published in The New England Journal of Medicine that suggest a way to take race out of the kidney disease equation [1, 2]. The approach involves a new equation that swaps out one blood test for another and doesn’t ask about race.

For a variety of reasons, including socioeconomic issues and access to healthcare, CKD disproportionately affects the Black community. In fact, Blacks with the condition are also almost four times more likely than whites to develop kidney failure. That’s why Blacks with CKD must visit their doctors regularly to monitor their kidney function, and often that visit involves eGFR.

The blood test used in eGFR measures creatinine, a waste product produced from muscle. For about the past 20 years, a few points have been automatically added to the score of African Americans, based on data showing that adults who identify as Black, on average, have a higher baseline level of circulating creatinine. But adjusting the score upward toward normal function runs the risk of making the kidneys seem a bit healthier than they really are and delaying life-preserving dialysis or getting on a transplant list.

A team led by Chi-yuan Hsu, University of California, San Francisco, took a closer look at the current eGFR calculations. The researchers used long-term data from the Chronic Renal Insufficiency Cohort (CRIC) Study, an NIH-supported prospective, observational study of nearly 4,000 racially and ethnically diverse patients with CKD in the U.S. The study design specified that about 40 percent of its participants should identify as Black.

To look for race-free ways to measure kidney function, the researchers randomly selected more than 1,400 of the study’s participants to undergo a procedure that allows kidney function to be measured directly instead of being estimated based on blood tests. The goal was to develop an accurate approach to estimating GFR, the rate of fluid flow through the kidneys, from blood test results that didn’t rely on race.

Their studies showed that simply omitting race from the equation would underestimate GFR in Black study participants. The best solution, they found, was to calculate eGFR based on cystatin C, a small protein that the kidneys filter from the blood, in place of the standard creatinine. Estimation of GFR using cystatin C generated similarly accurate results but without the need to factor in race.

The second NIH-supported study led by Lesley Inker, Tufts Medical Center, Boston, MA, came to similar conclusions. They set out to develop new equations without race using data from several prior studies. They then compared the accuracy of their new eGFR equations to measured GFR in a validation set of 12 other studies, including about 4,000 participants.

Their findings show that currently used equations that include race, sex, and age overestimated measured GFR in Black Americans. However, taking race out of the equation without other adjustments underestimated measured GFR in Black people. Equations including both creatinine and cystatin C, but omitting race, were more accurate. The new equations also led to smaller estimated differences between Black and non-Black study participants.

The hope is that these findings will build momentum toward widespread adoption of cystatin C for estimating GFR. Already, a national task force has recommended immediate implementation of a new diagnostic equation that eliminates race and called for national efforts to increase the routine and timely measurement of cystatin C [3]. This will require a sea change in the standard measurements of blood chemistries in clinical and hospital labs—where creatinine is routinely measured, but cystatin C is not. As these findings are implemented into routine clinical care, let’s hope they’ll reduce health disparities by leading to more accurate and timely diagnosis, supporting the goals of precision health and encouraging treatment of CKD for all people, regardless of their race.

References:

[1] Race, genetic ancestry, and estimating kidney function in CKD. Hsu CY, Yang W, Parikh RV, Anderson AH, Chen TK, Cohen DL, He J, Mohanty MJ, Lash JP, Mills KT, Muiru AN, Parsa A, Saunders MR, Shafi T, Townsend RR, Waikar SS, Wang J, Wolf M, Tan TC, Feldman HI, Go AS; CRIC Study Investigators. N Engl J Med. 2021 Sep 23.

[2] New creatinine- and cystatin C-based equations to estimate GFR without race. Inker LA, Eneanya ND, Coresh J, Tighiouart H, Wang D, Sang Y, Crews DC, Doria A, Estrella MM, Froissart M, Grams ME, Greene T, Grubb A, Gudnason V, Gutiérrez OM, Kalil R, Karger AB, Mauer M, Navis G, Nelson RG, Poggio ED, Rodby R, Rossing P, Rule AD, Selvin E, Seegmiller JC, Shlipak MG, Torres VE, Yang W, Ballew SH,Couture SJ, Powe NR, Levey AS; Chronic Kidney Disease Epidemiology Collaboration. N Engl J Med. 2021 Sep 23.

[3] A unifying approach for GFR estimation: recommendations of the NKF-ASN Task Force on Reassessing the Inclusion of Race in Diagnosing Kidney Disease. Delgado C, Baweja M, Crews DC, Eneanya ND, Gadegbeku CA, Inker LA, Mendu ML, Miller WG, Moxey-Mims MM, Roberts GV, St Peter WL, Warfield C, Powe NR. Am J Kidney Dis. 2021 Sep 22:S0272-6386(21)00828-3.

Links:

Chronic Kidney Disease (National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases/NIH)

Explaining Your Kidney Test Results: A Tool for Clinical Use (NIDDK)

Chronic Renal Insufficiency Cohort Study

Chi-yuan Hsu (University of California, San Francisco)

Lesley Inker (Tufts Medical Center, Boston)

NIH Support: National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases


Most Vaccine-Hesitant People Remain Willing to Change Their Minds

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A young black woman looks thoughful. A graph show changes in willingness to recieve the vaccine
Credit: fizkes/Shutterstock; adapted from Siegler, JAMA Netw Open. 2021

As long and difficult as this pandemic has been, I remain overwhelmingly grateful for the remarkable progress being made, including the hard work of so many people to develop rapidly and then deploy multiple life-saving vaccines. And yet, grave concerns remain that vaccine hesitancy—the reluctance of certain individuals and groups to get themselves and their children vaccinated—could cause this pandemic to go on much longer than it should.

We’re seeing the results of such hesitancy in the news every day, highlighting the rampant spread of COVID-19 that’s stretching our healthcare systems and resources dangerously thin in many places. The vast majority of those currently hospitalized with COVID-19 are unvaccinated, and most of those tragic 2,000 deaths each day could have been prevented. The stories of children and adults who realized too late the importance of getting vaccinated are heartbreaking.

With these troubling realities in mind, I was encouraged to see a new study in the journal JAMA Network Open that tracked vaccine hesitancy over time in a random sample of more than 4,600 Americans. This national study shows that vaccine hesitancy isn’t set in stone. Over the course of this pandemic, hesitancy has decreased, and many who initially said no are now getting their shots. Many others who remain unvaccinated lean toward making an appointment.

The findings come from Aaron Siegler and colleagues, Emory University, Atlanta. They were interested in studying how entrenched vaccine hesitancy would be over time. The researchers also wanted to see how often those who were initially hesitant went on to get their shots.

To find out, they recruited a diverse, random, national sampling of individuals from August to December 2020, just before the first vaccines were granted Emergency Use Approval and became widely available. They wanted to get a baseline, or starting characterization, on vaccine hesitancy. Participants were asked two straightforward questions, “Have you received the COVID-19 vaccine?” and “How likely are you to get it in the future?” From March to April 2021, the researchers followed up by asking participants the same questions again when vaccines were more readily available to many (although still not all) adults.

The survey’s initial results showed that nearly 70 percent of respondents were willing to get vaccinated at the outset, with the other 30 percent expressing some hesitancy. The good news is among the nearly 3,500 individuals who answered the survey at follow-up, about a third who were initially vaccine hesitant already had received at least one shot. Another third also said that they’d now be willing to get the vaccine, even though they hadn’t just yet.

Among those who initially expressed a willingness to get vaccinated, about half had done so at follow up by spring 2021 (again, some still may not have been eligible). Forty percent said they were likely to get vaccinated. However, 7 percent of those who were initially willing said they were now less likely to get vaccinated than before.

There were some notable demographic differences. Folks over age 65, people who identified as non-Hispanic Asians, and those with graduate degrees were most likely to have changed their minds and rolled up their sleeves. Only about 15 percent in any one of these groups said they weren’t willing to be vaccinated. Most reluctant older people ultimately got their shots.

The picture was more static for people aged 45 to 54 and for those with a high school education or less. The majority of those remained unvaccinated, and about 40 percent still said they were unlikely to change their minds.

At the outset, people of Hispanic heritage were as willing as non-Hispanic whites to get vaccinated. At follow-up, however, fewer Hispanics than non-Hispanic whites said they’d gotten their shots. This finding suggests that, in addition to some hesitancy, there may be significant barriers still to overcome to make vaccination easier and more accessible to certain groups, including Hispanic communities from Central and South America.

Willingness among non-Hispanic Blacks was consistently lowest, but nearly half had gotten at least one dose of vaccine by the time they completed the second survey. That’s comparable to the vaccination rate in white study participants. For more recent data on vaccination rates by race/ethnicity, see this report from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Overall, while a small number of respondents grew more reluctant over time, most people grew more comfortable with the vaccines and were more likely to say they’d get vaccinated, if they hadn’t already. In fact, by the end of the study, the hesitant group had shrunk from 31 to 15 percent. It’s worth noting that the researchers checked the validity of self-reported vaccination using antibody tests and the results matched up rather well.

This is all mostly good news, but there’s clearly more work to do. An estimated 70 million eligible Americans have yet to get their first shot, and remain highly vulnerable to infection and serious illness from the Delta variant. They are capable of spreading the virus to other vulnerable people around them (including children), and incubating the next variants that might provide more resistance to the vaccines and therapies. They are also at risk for Long COVID, even after a relatively mild acute illness.

The work ahead involves answering questions and addressing concerns from people who remain hesitant. It’s also incredibly important to reach out to those willing, but unvaccinated, individuals, to see what can be done to help them get their shots. If you happen to be one of those, it’s easy to find the places near you that have free vaccines ready to administer. Go to vaccines.gov, or punch 438829 on your cell phone and enter your zip code—in less than a minute you will get the location of vaccine sites nearby.

Nearly 400 million COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered in communities all across the United States. More than 600,000 more are being administered on average each day. And yet, more than 80,000 new infections are still reported daily, and COVID-19 still steals the lives of about 2,000 mostly unvaccinated people each day.

These vaccines are key for protecting yourself and ultimately beating this pandemic. As these findings show, the vast majority of Americans understand this and either have been vaccinated or are willing to do so. Let’s keep up the good work, and see to it that even more minds will be changed—and more individuals protected before they may find it’s too late.

Reference:

[1] Trajectory of COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy over time and association of initial vaccine hesitancy with subsequent vaccination. Siegler AJ, Luisi N, Hall EW, Bradley H, Sanchez T, Lopman BA, Sullivan PS. JAMA Netw Open. 2021 Sep 1;4(9):e2126882.

Links:

COVID-19 Research (NIH)

COVID-19 Vaccinations in the United States (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta)

Aaron Siegler (Emory University, Atlanta)

NIH Support: National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases


Vast Majority of Pregnant Women with COVID-19 Won’t Have Complications, Study Finds

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Pregnant woman
Credit: Getty Images/Eva-Katalin

It’s natural and highly appropriate for women to be concerned about their health and the wellbeing of their unborn babies during pregnancy. With the outbreak of the pandemic, those concerns have only increased, especially after a study found last spring that about 30 percent of pregnant women who become infected with SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, needed to be hospitalized [1].

But that early study didn’t clearly divide out hospitalizations that were due to pregnancy from those owing to complications of COVID-19. Now, a large, observational study has taken a more comprehensive look at the issue and published some reassuring news for parents-to-be: the vast majority of women who test positive for COVID-19 during their pregnancies won’t develop serious health complications [2]. What’s more, it’s also unlikely that their newborns will become infected with SARS-CoV-2.

The findings reported in JAMA Network Open come from a busy prenatal clinic that serves women who are medically indigent at Parkland Health and Hospital System, affiliated with the University of Texas Southwestern, Dallas. Researchers there, led by obstetrician Emily Adhikari, followed more than 3,300 pregnant women, most of whom were Hispanic (75 percent) or African American (14 percent). From March through August of this year, 252 women tested positive for COVID-19 during their pregnancies.

At diagnosis, 95 percent were asymptomatic or had only mild symptoms. Only 13 of the 252 COVID-19-positive women (5 percent) in the study developed severe or critical pneumonia, including just six with no or mild symptoms initially. Only 14 women (6 percent) were admitted to the hospital for management of their COVID-19 pneumonia, and all survived.

By comparing mothers with and without COVID-19 during pregnancy, the researchers found there was no increase in adverse pregnancy-related outcomes. Overall, women with COVID-19 during pregnancy were not more likely to give birth early on average. They weren’t at increased risk of dangerous preeclampsia, a pregnancy complication characterized by high blood pressure and organ damage, or an emergency C-section to protect the baby.

The researchers found no evidence that the placenta was compromised in any way by the SARS-CoV-2 infection. In most cases, newborns didn’t get sick. Only 6 of 188 infants (3 percent) tested positive for COVID-19. Most of those infected were born to mothers who were asymptomatic or had only mild illness.

This is all encouraging news. However, it is worth noting that mothers who developed severe COVID-19 before reaching 37 weeks, or well into the third trimester of pregnancy, were more likely to give birth prematurely. More research is needed, but the study also suggests that diabetes may increase the risk for severe COVID-19 in pregnancy.

This study’s bottom line is that most women who become infected with SARS-CoV-2 during pregnancy will do just fine. That doesn’t mean, however, that anyone should take this situation casually. The finding that 5 percent of pregnant women may become severely ill is still cause for concern. Plus not all researchers come to the same conclusion—an update to the first study cited in this post recently found a greater risk for pregnant women becoming severely ill from COVID-19 and giving birth prematurely.

Taken together, while there’s no need to panic about COVID-19 infection during pregnancy, it’s still a good idea for pregnant women and their loved ones to take extra precautions to protect their health. And, of course, follow the three W’s: Wear a mask, Watch your distance, and Wash your hands.

References:

[1] Characteristics of women of reproductive age with laboratory-confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infection by pregnancy status—United States, January 22–June 7, 2020. CDC COVID-19 Response Team. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2020 Mar 27;69(12):343-346.

[2] Pregnancy outcomes among women with and without severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 infection. Adhikari EH, Moreno W, Zofkie AC, MacDonald L, McIntire DD, Collins RRJ, Spong CY. JAMA Netw Open. 2020 Nov 2;3(11):e2029256.

Links:

Coronavirus (COVID) (NIH)

Combat COVID (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C.)

Data on COVID-19 during Pregnancy: Severity of Maternal Illness (Centers for Disease Control and Prevent, Atlanta)

COVID-19 Treatment Guidelines: Special Considerations in Pregnancy (NIH)

Emily Adhikari (University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas)


Study Highlights Need for Continued Care of COVID-19 Survivors

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Collage of people being cared for after contracting COVID-19
Credit: Composed of images from Getty

The past several months have shown that most people hospitalized with COVID-19 will get better. As inspiring as it is to see these patients breathe on their own and converse with their loved ones again, we are learning that many will leave the hospital still quite ill and in need of further care. But little has been published to offer a detailed demographic picture of those being discharged from our nation’s hospitals and the types of community-based care and monitoring that will be needed to keep them on the road to recovery.

A recent study in the journal EClinicalMedicine helps to fill in those gaps by chronicling the early COVID-19 experience of three prominent hospitals in the Boston area: Massachusetts General Hospital, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Newton-Wellesley Hospital. These data were reported from a patient registry of 247 middle-aged and older COVID-19 patients. The patients were admitted over three weeks last March into one of these hospitals, which are part of New England’s largest integrated health network.

The data confirm numerous previous reports that COVID-19 disproportionately affects people of color. The researchers, led by Jason H. Wasfy and Cian P. McCarthy, Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Boston, found a large number of their patients were Hispanic (30 percent) or Black (10 percent). Wasfy said these numbers could be driven by many factors, including a low income, more family members living in one home, greater difficulty accessing healthcare, presence of chronic illness (health disparities), and serving as essential workers during the pandemic.

The researchers also tracked the patients after discharge for about 80 days. About a third of patients left the hospital for a post-acute care facility to continue their rehabilitation. After discharge, many required supplemental oxygen (15 percent), tube feeding (9 percent), or treatment with medications including antipsychotics and prescription painkillers (16 percent). About 10 percent were readmitted to the hospital within weeks or months of their initial discharge.

Wasfy and colleagues also found:

· Many patients undergoing treatment were enrolled in Medicaid (20 percent) or both Medicaid and Medicare (12 percent).

· A substantial number also were retired (36 percent) or unemployed (8.5 percent), highlighting the role of non-occupational spread. Many others worked in the hospitality industry, healthcare, or public transportation.

· A large proportion (42 percent) of hospitalized patients required intensive care. The good news is that most of them (86 percent) ultimately recovered enough to be discharged from the hospital. Tragically, 14 percent—34 of 247 people—died in the hospital.

These findings represent hospitals in just one notable American city hard hit early in the pandemic. But they spotlight the importance of public health efforts to prevent COVID-19 among the most vulnerable and reduce its most devastating social impacts. These are critical points, and NIH has recently begun supporting community engagement research efforts in areas hardest hit by COVID-19. With this support and access to needed post-discharge care, we aim to help more COVID survivors stay on the road to a full recovery.

Reference:

[1] Early clinical and sociodemographic experience with patients hospitalized with COVID-19 at a large American healthcare system. McCarthy CP et al. EClinicalMedicine. August 19, 2020.

Links:

Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

Massachusetts General Hospital (Boston)

Brigham and Women’s Hospital (Boston)

Newton-Wellesley Hospital (Newton, MA)

Jason Wasfy (Massachusetts General Hospital)


COVID-19 Brings Health Disparities Research to the Forefront

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Zoom conversation between Francis Collins and Eliseo Perez-Stable

The coronavirus 2019 (COVD-19) pandemic has brought into sharp focus many of the troubling things that we already knew about health disparities in the United States but have failed to address. With the bright light now shining on this important issue, it is time to talk about the role research can play in reducing the disproportionate burden of COVID-19, as well as improving the health of all people in our great nation. 

In recent weeks, we’ve seen a growing list of disturbing statistics about how blacks, Hispanics, tribal communities, and some other racial, ethnic, and disadvantaged socioeconomic groups are bearing the brunt of COVID-19. One of the latest studies comes from a research team that analyzed county-by-county data gathered about a month ago. Their findings? The 22 percent of U.S. counties that are disproportionately black accounted for 52 percent of our nation’s COVID-19 cases and 58 percent of COVID-19 deaths. In a paper awaiting peer review, the team, led by Emory University, Atlanta, and amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research, Washington, DC., noted that neither the size of the county nor whether it was urban or rural mattered [1].

Recently, I had an opportunity to discuss the disparate burden of COVID-19 with Dr. Eliseo Pérez-Stable, Director of NIH’s National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD). Besides leading an institute, Dr. Pérez-Stable is a widely recognized researcher who studies various factors that contribute to health disparities. Our conversation took place via videoconferencing, with him linking in from his home in Washington, D.C., and me from my home in nearby Maryland. Here’s a condensed transcript of our chat:

Collins: Eliseo, you and I recently had a chance to have a pretty intense discussion with the Congressional Black Caucus about health disparities and the COVID-19 pandemic. So, could you start off with a little bit about what populations are being hit hardest?

Pérez-Stable: Collecting data about disease incidence and mortality on the basis of race and ethnicity and other important demographic factors, like socioeconomic status, had really been absent in this pandemic until recently.

Part of that I think is entirely understandable. Hospitals were pressed with a surge of very sick patients, and there was a certain amount of fear and panic in the community. So, people were not completing all these forms that usually get turned in to the health departments and then forwarded to the CDC. If you go back in history, similar things happened in the early 1980s with the HIV epidemic. We weren’t collecting data on race and other sociodemographic variables initially. But, with time, we did complete these data and a picture emerged.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, obviously, the outcomes are much faster, with over 60,000 deaths in just a matter of three months. And we started to see reports, initially out of Connecticut, Milwaukee, Chicago, and New Orleans, that African Americans were dying at a disproportionate rate.

Now, the initial—and I think still the most likely—explanation for this higher mortality relates to two factors. The first is a higher rate of co-morbidities. We know that if you have cardiovascular disease, more than mild obesity, or diabetes, you’re more likely to get severe COVID-19 and potentially die from it. So, we could have just said, “Aha! It’s obvious why this population, and others with higher rates of co-morbidities might be expected to have higher rates of severe disease and higher mortality.”

But there is a second factor that relates to getting infected, for which we have much-less clear data. There was recently a map in The Washington Post showing the distribution of the rate of COVID-19 infections in Washington, D.C., by ward. The highest rates are in the wards that are east of the Anacostia River, which are about 90 percent African American. So, there is an appearance of a correlation between the proportion of African Americans in the community and the rate of Covid-19 infection. Now why could that be?

Collins: Yes, what explains that?

Pérez-Stable: Well, I think crowding is part of it, certainly in this neighborhood. A second option would be multiple families living under one roof.

Collins: So, you can’t exactly practice physical distancing very well in that situation.

Pérez-Stable:  Absolutely. You and I can go into our respective rooms, probably have our respective bathrooms, and socially and physically isolate from the rest of the household if need be. Many people can’t do that. They have three generations in one small apartment, all using one bathroom, maybe two bedrooms for six or eight people.

So, we do face different conditions by which one casual infection can lead to much more community transmission. But much information still needs to be ascertained and there does seem to be some regional variance. For example, in Chicago, Milwaukee, and Atlanta, the reports, at least initially, are worse than they are in Connecticut or Florida. Also, New York City, which has been the epicenter of the U.S. for this pandemic, has an increased rate of infections and mortality among Latino-Hispanic populations as well. So, it isn’t isolated to an African-American issue.

Collins: What about access to healthcare?

Pérez-Stable: Again, we can postulate based on a little bit of anecdote and a little bit of data. I’m a general internist by background, and I can see the enormous impact this pandemic has had on healthcare settings.

First, elective ambulatory visits and elective admissions to the hospital have been postponed, delayed, or cancelled. About 90 percent of ambulatory care is occurring through telemedicine or telephone connections, so in-person visits are occurring only for really urgent matters or suspected COVID-19.

If you have health insurance and can use systems, you can probably, through telephone triage with a nurse, get either approval or nonapproval for being tested [for COVID-19], drive to a place, get tested by someone wearing protective equipment, and never actually have to visit with anyone. And you’ll get your result now back as soon as one day, depending on the system. Now, if you’re insured, but don’t really know how to use systems, navigating all these things can be a huge challenge. So, that could be a factor.

People are also afraid to come to clinic, they’re afraid to show up at the emergency room, because they’re afraid to get infected. So, they’re worried about going in, unless they get very sick.  And when they get very sick, they may be coming in with more advanced cases [of COVID-19].

So, telephone triage, advice from clinicians on the phone, is critical. We are seeing some doctors base their decisions on whether a person is able to breathe okay on the phone, able to say a whole sentence without catching their breath. These kinds of basic things that we learned in clinical medicine training are coming into play in a big way now, because we just cannot provide the kind of care, even in the best of circumstances, that people may need.

Of course, uninsured patients will have even more barriers, although everyone in the healthcare system is trying their best to help patients when they need to be helped, rather than depend on insurance triage.

Collins: A big part of trying to keep the disease from spreading has been access to testing so that people, even those with mild symptoms, can find out if they have this virus and, if so, quarantine and enable public health workers to check out their contacts. I’m guessing, from what you said, that testing has been happening a lot less in urban communities that are heavily populated by African Americans and that further propagates the spread of the disease. Am I right?

Pérez-Stable: So far, most testing has been conducted on the basis of symptoms. So, if you have enough symptoms that you may potentially need to be hospitalized, then you get tested. Also, if you’re a healthcare worker who had contact with a COVID-19 patient, you might be tested, or if there’s someone you’ve been very close to that was infected, you may be tested. So, I don’t think so much it’s a matter of disproportionate access to testing by one group or another, as much as that the overall triage and selection criteria for testing have been rather narrow. Up until now, it has not been a simple process to get tested for COVID-19. As we scale up and get better point-of-care tests and much easier access to getting tested, I think you’ll see dissemination across the board.

Collins: It’s interesting we’re talking about this, because this is an area that Congress recently came to NIH and said, “We want you to do something about the testing by encouraging more technology, particularly technology that can be distributed to the point-of-care, and that is out in the community.”

Everyone wants a test that gives you a quick turnaround, an answer within an hour, instead of maybe a day or two. A big part of what NIH is trying to do is to make sure that if we’re going to develop these new testing technologies, they get deployed in places that otherwise might not have much access to testing—maybe by working through the community health centers. So, we’re hoping we might be able to make a contribution there.

Pérez-Stable: The economic factors in this pandemic are also huge. A significant proportion of the population that we’re referring to—the disparity population, the minorities, the poor people—work in service jobs where they’re on the front line. They were the restaurant servers and people in the kitchen, they’re still the bus drivers and the Uber drivers, and those who are working in pharmacies and supermarkets.

On the one hand, they are at higher risk for getting infected because they’re in more contact with people. On the other hand, they’re really dependent on this income to maintain their household. So, if they test positive or get exposed to COVID-19, we really do have a challenge when we ask them to quarantine and not go to work. They’re not in a position where they have sick leave, and they may be putting themselves at risk for being laid off.

Collins: Eliseo, you’ve been studying health disparities pretty much your whole research career. You come from a community where health disparities are a reality, having been born in Cuba and being part of the Latino community. Did you expect that COVID-19 would be this dramatic in the ways in which it has so disproportionately affected certain groups?

Pérez-Stable: I can’t say that I did. My first thought as a physician was to ask: “Is there any reason to think that an infectious agent like COVID-19 would disproportionally infect or impact any population?” My gut answer was “No.” Infectious diseases usually seem to affect all people; sort of equal opportunity invaders. There are some data that would say that influenza and pneumonia are not any worse among African Americans or Latinos than among whites. There are some slight differences in some regions, but not much.

Yet I know this a question that NIH-funded scientists are interested in addressing. We need to make sure that there aren’t any particular susceptibility factors, possibly related to genetics or the lung epithelium, that lead to such different COVID-19 outcomes in different individuals. Clearly, something must be going on, but we don’t know what that is. Maybe one of those factors tracks through race or ethnicity because of what those social constructs represent.

I recently listened to a presentation by Rob Califf, former FDA Commissioner, who spoke about how the pandemic has created a spotlight on our disparities-creating system. I think much of the time this disparities-creating system is in the background; it doesn’t really affect most people’s daily lives. Now, we’re suddenly hit with a bucket of cold water called COVID-19, and we’re saying what is going on and what can we do about it to make a difference. I hope that, once we begin to emerge from this acute crisis, we take the opportunity to address these fundamental issues in our society.

Collins: Indeed. Let’s talk about what you’re doing at NIMHD to support research to try to dig into both the causes of health disparities and the interventions that might help.

Pérez-Stable: Prompted by your motivation, we started talking about how minority health and health disparities research could respond to this pandemic. In the short-term, we thought along the lines of how can we communicate mitigation interventions, such as physical distancing, in a more effective way to our communities? We also asked what we could do to enhance access to healthcare for our populations, both to manage chronic conditions and for diagnosis and treatment of acute COVID-19.

We also considered in the mid- and long-term effects of economic disruption—this surge of unemployment, loss of jobs, loss of insurance, loss of income—on people’s health. Worries include excess use of alcohol and other substances, and worsening of mental and emotional well-being, particularly due to severe depression and chronic mental disorders not being well controlled. Intimate partner violence has already been noted to increase in some countries, including France, Spain, and the United States, that have gone on physical distancing interventions. Similarly, child abuse can be exacerbated under these circumstances. Just think of 24/7 togetherness as a test of how people can hold it together all the time. I think that that can bring out some fragility. So, interventions to address these, that really activate our community networks and community-based organizations, are real strengths. They build on the resilience of the community to highlight how we can get through this difficult period of time.

I feel optimistic that science will bring answers, in the form of both therapies and vaccines. But in the meantime, we have a way to go and we a lot to do.  

Collins: You mentioned the promise of vaccines. The NIH is working intensively on this, particularly through a partnership called ACTIV, Accelerating Covid-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines. We hope that in several more months, we’ll be in a position to begin testing these vaccines on a large scale, after having some assurances about their safety and efficacy. From our conversation, it sounds like we should be trying to get early access to those vaccines to people at highest risk, including those in communities with the heaviest burden. But how will that be received? There hasn’t always been an easy relationship between researchers, particularly government researchers, and the African-American community.

Pérez-Stable: I think we have learned from our historical experiences that mistrust of the system is real. To try to pretend that it isn’t there is a big mistake. Address these concerns upfront, obtain support from thought leaders in the community, and really work hard to be inclusive. In addition to vaccines, we need participation in any clinical trials that are coming up for therapeutics.

We also need research on how optimally to communicate this with all the different segments of the population. This includes not just explaining what it means to be eligible for vaccine trials or therapeutic trials, but also discussing the consequences of, say, getting tested, whether it be a viral or antibody test. What does the information mean for them?  

Most people just want to know “Am I clear of the virus or not?” That certainly could be part of the answer, but many may require more nuanced responses. Then there’s behavior. If I’m infected and I recover, am I safe to go back out and do things that other people shouldn’t do? We’d love to be able to inform the population about that. But, as you know, we don’t really have the answers to that just yet.

Collins: Good points. How do we make sure, when we’re trying to reach out to populations that have shouldered such a heavy burden, that we’re actually providing information in a fashion that is readily understood?

Pérez-Stable:  One thing to keep in mind is the issue of language. About 5 to 10 percent of U.S. adults don’t speak English well. So, we really have to address the language barrier. I also want to highlight the challenge that some tribal nations are facing. Navajo country has had particular challenges with COVID-19 infections in a setting of minimal medical infrastructure. In fact, there are communities that have to go and get their water for the day at a distant site, so they don’t have modern plumbing. How can we recommend frequent hand washing to someone who doesn’t even have running water at home? These are just a few examples of the diversity of our country that need to be addressed as we deal with this pandemic.

Collins:  Eliseo, you’ve given us a lot to think about in an obviously very serious situation. Anything you’d like to add?

Pérez-Stable:  In analyzing health outcomes, researchers often think about responses related to a metabolic pathway or to a gene or to a response to a particular drug. But as we use the power of science to understand and contain the COVID-19 pandemic, I’d like to re-emphasize the importance of considering race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, the built environment, the social environment, and systems. Much of the time these factors may only play secondary roles, but, as in all science related to humans, I think they have to be considered. This experience should be a lesson for us to learn more about that.

Collins: Thank you for those wonderful, inspiring words. It was good to have this conversation, Eliseo, because we are the National Institutes of Health, but that has to be health for everybody. With COVID-19, we have an example where that has not turned out to be the case. We need to do everything we can going forward to identify ways to change that.

Reference:

[1] Assessing Differential Impacts of COVID-19 on Black Communities. Millet GA et al. MedRxiv. Preprint posted on May 8, 2020.

Links:

Video: Francis Collins and Eliseo Pérez-Stable on COVID-19 Health Disparities (NIH)

Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

Director’s Corner (National Institute on Minority Health and Disparities/NIH)

COVID-19 and Racial/Ethnic Disparities. Webb Hooper M, Nápoles AM, Pérez-Stable EJ.JAMA. 2020 May 11.

amfAR Study Shows Disproportionate Impact of COVID-19 on Black Americans, amfAR News Release, May 5, 2020.