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“We lost a generation of elders.” Panel tackles lasting impacts of COVID on health disparities

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The lasting impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic will be felt for decades to come, and some of those impacts aren’t fully understood yet, according to a panel of health care practitioners and public health experts speaking at the Wisconsin Leadership Summit on Tuesday.

Panelists included:

  • Dr. Lyle Ignace, an internal medicine physician and member of the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin and the Coeur D’Alene Tribe of Idaho
  • Aurielle Smith, director of policy, planning and evaluation at Public Health Madison and Dane County,
  • Dr. Jasmine Zapata, Chief Medical Officer and State Epidemiologist for Community Health at Wisconsin Department of Health Services Bureau of Community Health Promotion 
  • Aaron G. Perry, founder of the Rebalanced-Life Wellness Association and Perry Family Free Clinic

The panel was moderated by Danielle Yancey, director of the Native American Center for Health Professions at the UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health.

Ignace recalled a meeting on March 15, 2020, intended to address the rapidly-unfolding crisis that would become the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The impression that I had coming out of that meeting was that there was no plan. There was no strategy,” he said. “And that really concerned me, because in our respective fields, we all take on a responsibility for assuring the care and well being of the community that we serve. It was quite evident to me that we were going to be kind of on our own in how we manage this and it was a bit nerve wracking because as a frontline physician, knowing what the health disparities were for Native people already, this was going to be devastating.”

Smith said it wasn’t just the plan that was lacking.

“There were loosely laid plans,” she said. “There was no financing or critical infrastructure to support the implementation” of the plans, however.

That led to a deepening disparity in access to health care, she said.

“Those who already experienced barriers to access just experienced increased barriers accessing health care services,” said Smith. “We recognize that we told everyone to stay home for more than a year. I think in a lot of ways, we’re aware of some of the effects in the health space and in the social emotional wellbeing space. And I also think we have only touched the surface of some of the impacts of COVID-19.”

Some of those impacts are directly related to the disease itself, which disproportionately affected people of color and elderly people. Ignace said the life expectancy of Native American men fell from 72 to 65, the same as it was in 1944.

“This is going to have a lasting impact, and it’s not going to be five years, 10 years. We’ve lost a generation of elders,” he said.

Other lasting impacts on health and health care were brought on by the isolation necessary to control the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, the panelists said.

“We talk a lot about and in the public health world about adverse childhood experiences. If you have adverse childhood experiences in your early years, it increases your risk for suicide, risky behaviors, chronic disease, shortens your life, later on in life,” Zapata said. “And there are some that are saying now (for) all these young people who have had to live through the pandemic, the pandemic in and of itself is an adverse childhood experience. We’re going to be seeing the ripple effects of that for years and years and years to come.”

Zapata added that roughly half of all maternal deaths – meaning deaths of women within a year of giving birth – are now related to drug overdoses, a significant increase over earlier time periods. 

Perry said institutions like his learned that long-term communication strategies are required – especially in Black communities – to combat misinformation and a well-earned distrust of the health care system.

“Restoring trust and healthcare for Black men, that’s our biggest push,” said Perry, whose organization operates five clinics for Black men inside barbershops. He said the group held weekly conference calls with Black man for 22 weeks before vaccines were approved.

“The reason we did that is because we know our brothers, we know ourselves. We cannot wait until the vaccine gets here, and then try to encourage people to take it,” he said. “we started having those conversations literally for 22 weeks. When the first vaccine was rolled out, and we started encouraging our men to get in line, our first vaccine clinic we had over 160 men standing there getting vaccinated.”

The racial reckoning that took place after the murder of George Floyd – which wouldn’t have happened without the pandemic allowing the world’s attention to be focused on the murder – focused national attention on the struggles of Black men, but the country never took the next step, Perry said.

“The one thing that we’ve learned during this pandemic is that America has been very willing to listen to the voices of Black men, but has completely ignored our pain,” he said. “That has to change. What good is it to listen to my voice if you intend to ignore my pain?”

Perry said one of the measures intended to curb the spread of the disease had a particularly devastating impact on Black men.

“The barber shop has always been a sacred place dating way back to … the Jim Crow era, when people just couldn’t go certain places. So when Governor Evers declared all the barber shops closed, we were in a tough spot, because we’ve just eliminated that sacred space,” Perry said.

In response, Perry engaged with a national organization called Black Men Run, and expanded it to encompass new groups like Black Men Cycle and Black Men Hike.

“These are all active activities that we can do, to keep that sacredness together, while still social distancing,” Perry said.

The panel was one of more than 20 panel discussions on a range of topics at the fifth annual Wisconsin Leadership Summit, held Monday and Tuesday in downtown Madison.