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What Inequities In The U.S. Health Care System Are Amplified By The Pandemic?


President Trump, Rudy Giuliani and Ben Carson are three of the more than 15 million Americans who've caught COVID-19. What sets them apart is their excellent access to health care.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: They gave me Regeneron, and it was, like, unbelievable. I felt good immediately. I felt as good three days ago as I do now.

SHAPIRO: Trump is referring there to an experimental antibody cocktail by the drug company Regeneron, which he received before the Food and Drug Administration had given it a green light.


The FDA later authorized the cocktail for emergency use, but supplies are scarce. Regeneron hopes to have doses available for 200,000 patients soon, this at a time when we're seeing more than 200,000 new cases of the virus every day. For more on disparities in COVID treatment, I'm joined by Dr. Lisa Cooper. She's director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Equity. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

LISA COOPER: Thank you, Audie.

CORNISH: So in this same video, President Trump says, quote, "I want everybody to be given the same treatment as your president." This is what he was saying when he was discharged from the hospital in October. But given the difficulty of manufacturing these antibodies and the number of patients that are being seen now, is that possible?

COOPER: I don't think that that's likely anytime soon.

CORNISH: What impact do you think those comments had?

COOPER: Well, I think they actually are very misleading to the public. We don't even know for sure whether these treatments work. And so, you know, we have a few studies on them, and some have conflicting results. So the one thing this does is to actually make people think that there's some sort of magical treatment that works that they are not getting access to. So setting that aside, though, we do know that it's also true that people who are wealthy and well-connected are more likely to get access to the newer treatment. And we know that there are these inequities in our health care system. And so this is just actually making it even seem worse.

CORNISH: What are some of the other ways, aside from this kind of VIP access to treatment, that COVID treatment can vary - right? - depending on who you are, where you live, how much money you have?

COOPER: Right. So, you know, let's say you live in a community of color. And we've seen, for example, that there are fewer testing sites in those communities. So if you suspect you have COVID - OK, let's say you're a frontline worker. You don't have sick leave, so you might end up going to work, spreading it to other people who you work with and then not actually even knowing where to go to get tested or once you find out not being able to get to it without taking a bus across town. You're also less likely to be able to get that resolved quickly. And during that time, they might not really know whether they tested positive or not. They might continue doing their regular activities. And then also, if they start to feel more sick and don't have a regular place that they go for health care, then they might delay actually getting help. And then once they get there, they might be much sicker than they would have been if they were somebody that had many more resources.

CORNISH: And so this is why we see the higher percentage of hospitalizations and deaths.

COOPER: I think that is exactly, you know, why we do. But it's not one thing. You know, it's a multilayered problem.

CORNISH: It seems like this gets at the argument you're making in your forthcoming book, "Why Are Health Disparities Everyone's Problem?" It seems like the pandemic would be a good example of where this can, quote, "become everybody's problem."

COOPER: It's a perfect example of the fact that when we don't take care of everyone in our society, we all become at greater risk. You know, people in communities of color didn't have access to care, didn't have access to clean water, safe housing, healthy food. And so they were at higher risk of getting infected from COVID, as a result, spreading it to others, our entire economy shutting down, kids not able to go to school. And so this really shows how everyone really needs to care about health disparities, that it's really all of our responsibility because it impacts all of us.

CORNISH: That's Dr. Lisa Cooper. She's director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Equity. Thank you for your time.

COOPER: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.