Health News Roundup

Gaps in who’s getting vaccinated, disparities in the effectiveness of key medical devices, and more in this week’s roundup

‘These numbers are incredibly important’: Doctors and lawmakers call on FDA to address racial disparities in pulse oximeters
Erin Brodwin and Nicholas St. Fleur, STAT, Feb. 10
A long-documented, under-the-radar disparity is garnering new attention amid the COVID-19 pandemic: Some pulse oximeters, which measure oxygen levels and are critical to making decisions about patient care, aren’t as accurate in Black patients and other people of color. Research suggests that because of how darker skin absorbs light used in pulse oximeters, the measurements may be inaccurate in patients with non-white skin. “These numbers that we use are incredibly important,” said physician Thomas Valley, an author of a December study on the topic. “They’re essentially the difference between being admitted to the hospital or not, in starting oxygen or not, having your symptoms treated or not.”

Eligible Black and Hispanic residents getting COVID vaccine at about half the rate as eligible white residents
Kasturi Pananjady, Jacqueline Rabe Thomas, and Dave Altimari, The Connecticut Mirror, Feb. 10
Concerns that Black residents are getting vaccinated for COVID-19 at a rate far below that of white residents were borne out Wednesday with the release of state data — and a CT Mirror analysis shows that Hispanic residents are also lagging behind. Everyone 75 and older in Connecticut has been eligible to get the vaccine for weeks, but only 13% of eligible Black residents have received their first doses, compared to 30% of white older people and about 18% of Hispanics in the same age group, according to a CT Mirror analysis.
Related: State memo: COVID vaccine providers should emphasize vulnerable populations, Dave Altimari, The Connecticut Mirror, Feb. 9 

Vaccination rates follow the money in states with big wealth gaps
Olivia Goldhill, STAT, Feb. 11
Connecticut has the most glaring disparity in vaccination rates between its richest and poorest communities — a difference of 65% — according to a STAT analysis of local-level vaccine data in 10 states with the biggest wealth gaps. Any gap in vaccinating rich versus poor inevitably exacerbates racial divides. Black and Latino people are far more likely to live in poverty than white people, and despite having died at higher rates throughout the pandemic, they are receiving fewer vaccines than white people. While older people are more vulnerable to COVID-19, distributing the vaccines based on age can contribute to inequities. In Connecticut, the northeast section of Hartford has a life expectancy of 68.9 years, compared to 84.6 years in West Hartford Center, so a smaller share of its residents have been eligible for vaccination so far.

With Latinos dying at higher rates from COVID, Brigham and Women’s Hospital intervenes
Martha Bebinger, WBUR, Feb. 2
Staff at Brigham and Women’s Hospital dug into data as they tried to understand the disparate impact of COVID-19. They uncovered unsettling disparities — and made changes to try to address them. These included adding interpreters and adapting translation services to virtual care. It included taking steps to meet the needs of lower-paid hospital employees, who were more likely to get COVID than doctors and nurses, and setting up testing sites in neighborhoods with high infection rates. Mass General Brigham leaders say they’ll take what they’ve learned by dissecting disparities during COVID and expand remedies across the hospital network.

Community health workers, often overlooked, bring trust to the pandemic fight
Michele Cohen Marill, Kaiser Health News, Feb. 8
As the pandemic brings long-standing health disparities into sharper view, community health workers are coming to the forefront in the public health response. It is an about-face after their efforts were largely curtailed early in the pandemic, when “nonessential” health services came to a halt. President Joe Biden has endorsed a bigger role for these workers as part of his $1.9 trillion “American Rescue Plan.” The proposal includes the hiring of 100,000 people to help with “vaccine outreach and contact tracing in the near term, and to transition into community health roles” after the COVID crisis is over.