Eye on DEI

What COVID-19 taught us about health equity in the U.S.

By Hilary Waldman

A conversation with Elisabeth Michel, health equity specialist, Hartford HealthCare (HHC) Department of Health Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (DEI). Michel, who grew up in Waterbury, earned her bachelor’s degree at Duke University, where she first learned about the social determinants of health, lighting her passion for health equity. She holds a Master of Public Health from the University of Michigan, where she studied the intersections of health behavior, innovation and health equity. She joined HHC in January 2021.

The COVID-19 pandemic cast a harsh glare on health inequities in the United States: Black and Hispanic people are three times more likely to die from the virus and significantly less likely to get vaccinated.

Elisabeth Michel is among a small army leading efforts at HHC to ensure the vaccine — and all aspects of high-quality healthcare — are available to everybody who wants and needs it.

What has COVID-19 taught us about health equity in the U.S.?

EM: People of color do not contract COVID-19
at higher rates, but they are more likely to die from it. COVID-19 brought to light vulnerabilities in every sphere of life. Think of people who can take time off or work remotely vs. people who must work in person. Think of kids who can learn at home vs. kids who don’t have resources for homeschooling. Students who relied on getting breakfast and lunch from school are now facing greater food insecurity. And, of course, inequities in healthcare. We can no longer ignore these dynamics and their impact on health outcomes.

Why might communities of color be hesitant to get the COVID-19 vaccine?

EM: The history of medical and systemic racism understandably bred mistrust. There’s the Tuskegee experiments in the 1930s, when scientists denied Black men treatment for syphilis, and the case of Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman whose cells were used for cancer research without permission or compensation.

Even today there remain countless examples of people of color being overlooked in healthcare settings, not being listened to, and experiencing bias which directly leads to preventable deaths. Addressing systemic racism and building trust is key for increasing confidence in the COVID-19 vaccines.

With this background, how might communities of color think about the vaccine?

EM: It’s important to seek quality information from trusted sources. It’s also important to be clear about risks. On one hand, communities of color are dying at three times the rate of white communities, a number we can’t afford to ignore. On the other hand, uncertainty remains about the long-term effects of the vaccine. We don’t know what will happen five years from now. But we do know these vaccines, developed from strong science, are slowing the spread of a deadly disease, and are the channel of return to a more normal life.

Are there any silver linings from the COVID-19 pandemic?

EM: The world shut down, and many people realized that health inequities and injustice must be addressed, so we all can achieve our best lives. Society is catching up to what public health has been saying for decades.

Learn more about HHC’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts by listening to a podcast at HartfordHealthCare.org/Podcasts.