Given that COVID-19 disproportionately impacted Black Americans at the onset of the global pandemic, it should come as no surprise that this community has also been hit hard by long COVID.
According to a recent study, roughly 700,000 people in the U.S. have long COVID, defined as symptoms lasting longer than three weeks. Much like the initial outbreak of the coronavirus, long COVID has highlighted long-standing health inequities in the U.S., particularly in communities of color. While there isn’t clear data regarding the racial and ethnic breakdown of long COVID just yet, Black or African-American people are 1.7 times more likely to die from COVID compared to white people, and experts are anticipating increased disparities in diagnosis and access to treatment.
That’s partly because Black, Latinx, American Indian, Alaska Native, Asian, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander, and other non-white racial groups in the U.S. are less likely to have access to COVID testing and more likely to be infected, hospitalized, and experience adverse outcomes (including death), per the study.
Additionally, these communities tend to be overrepresented in high-risk occupations, such as health and care workers, that come with a higher risk of dying from COVID-19. Furthermore, they’re less likely to have access to adequate health insurance and empathetic end-of-life care.
While long COVID is more common in people who’ve experienced severe COVID-19 illness, anyone who’s been infected with the virus can experience post-COVID conditions—even those who had mild illness or no symptoms.
Symptoms include extreme fatigue that interferes with daily life; fever; difficulty breathing or shortness of breath; chest pain; trouble sleeping; dizziness; diarrhea; changes in menstrual cycles, and more. Currently, there is no testing available to diagnose long COVID, since these symptoms may be due to other health problems.
COVID is just the latest health issue Black communities are at higher risk for
The list of deadly diseases Black people are at higher risk for already runs long, ranging from stroke and cancer to asthma and pneumonia, according to the Office of Minority Health. COVID makes that list even longer.
“Long COVID can also affect other comorbidities that disproportionately affect the Black community, like hypertension and diabetes,” Dr. LaTasha Perkins, a Washington, D.C.-based family physician, tells Fortune. “And if there were any changes to those chronic medical issues when you were affected, those can persist as well.”
In order to combat these inequities, Perkins stresses the importance of health education in Black communities, which may be especially mistrustful of the health care system given historical mistreatment, exploitation, and experimentation.
While we wait for the system to catch up, she says, we need to do three things: educate individuals to advocate for themselves; train more community health advocates to meet with Black populations and thoughtfully answer and address their questions; and empower individuals to get the right information for taking care of themselves.
Perkins also urges people to get tested if they’re experiencing COVID symptoms or have recently been exposed. If you happen to test positive, Perkins says you should inform your primary care doctor as soon as possible in the event other symptoms develop and later present as long COVID.
In this case, ignorance is not bliss. She says knowing your status can help you make the right decisions to help stop the spread.
“Plus, we’re the ones getting it disproportionately, we’re the ones that are still dying of it, and we’re the ones that already are disproportionately affected by other chronic medical issues,” she says. “Let’s not allow long-haul [COVID] to be our next chronic medical issue because we’re ignoring it.”