The coronavirus pandemic has caused nearly 3 million deaths worldwide—many of them in medically underserved communities. This flood of preventable suffering deeply impacted the front-line clinicians, public health workers, and aid workers who witnessed it. Now they’re stepping forward to tell their stories.
This April, the 17th annual Yale Healthcare Conference invited an international panel of clinicians, epidemiologists, and aid workers to share experiences and lessons learned from the pandemic. Representing the U.S. clinician perspective was Dr. Maureen Bell, MD, a Vituity emergency physician, and an emergency department medical director at Howard University Hospital in Washington, D.C. She joined panelists from India, Kenya, Saudi Arabia, and the United Kingdom in a call for health equity—particularly in the area of COVID-19 vaccination.
Here are some of the critical insights Dr. Bell shared from her experiences treating COVID-19 patients in a largely Black community, plus her hopes for the future.
Q: Was there a particular moment at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic when you realized things were about to change?
Maureen Bell, MD, FACEP: At the start of the pandemic, we were screening patients based on travel to specific areas or close contact with someone who’d traveled. I realized things were about to change when we started seeing patients with typical chest X-ray findings of COVID-19 who had no travel history.
Q: In your region, what are the greatest challenges that you as a provider faced on a daily basis during the pandemic?
MB: At Howard, a lot of our patients come from underserved communities. We were seeing younger patients presenting to the emergency department. A lot of these patients had previously undiagnosed comorbidities, which unfortunately meant they were at increased risk.
One of the COVID patients I treated early in the pandemic was a woman in her 40s with uncontrolled diabetes. She died despite all the medical care we provided. Many of our patients are essential workers, or they’re living in multigenerational households, contributing to the further spread of COVID in these communities.
As colleagues and coworkers became patients, one of my greatest concerns has been keeping our personnel and community safe as we continue to fight this pandemic. At the beginning of the pandemic, our concern was personal protective equipment. But now, we need to focus on getting vaccinated so we can save lives.
Q: What are the lessons that COVID-19 should teach us about health equity? What do you think needs to change moving forward?
MB: COVID-19 shined the light on disparities in healthcare. And it’s important that the minority communities most significantly impacted not opt-out of getting vaccinated. As healthcare providers, we need to approach and engage with our communities and address their questions and concerns so they can confidently choose to get the COVID-19 vaccine. This keeps not only them safe but also the people with whom they interact.
As a nation, we’re only as healthy as the most vulnerable among us. We all live in a community where we interact with people who have access to health equity and those who don’t. They’re the people who work in our grocery stores, who drive our buses, who clean our hospitals.
Going forward, we need equitable access to healthcare, including primary care appointments, cancer screening appointments, and access to specialty care. These are all things that will contribute to wellness and health within our communities.