SoCal doctors say racial disparity continues with COVID long haulers

From the start, the virus has unequally affected communities of color, putting them more at risk of getting sick and dying.
LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- At the start of the pandemic, we witnessed how COVID-19 cases ravaged communities of color. The virus revealed vulnerabilities and deep disparities.

Now, doctors say this troubling trend continues with patients suffering with what they call "long COVID."

After Thanksgiving in 2020, 53-year-old Francisco Verdugo of Calipatria and his wife tested positive for coronavirus. Their symptoms kept getting worse.

"It turned out that we both had pneumonia," he said. A month later, Verdugo's wife was back to normal.

"But I went in and they looked at my X-rays and they told me my lungs were clear and that the pneumonia was gone," Verdugo said. "I remember asking the doctor, 'Why was I still feeling exactly the same?' It was that chest pain that I had 24 hours a day, and the cough. The fatigue. Long COVID is what he called it. At the time, I had never heard the term."

Back then, few people had heard the term. When Verdugo got infected, vaccines weren't available yet. At various clinics, doctors noticed a trend.

"We don't have any studies, particularly on long COVID syndrome. But I can tell you, based on my observation, I've seen a lot of minorities in my clinic," said Dr. Giv Heidari, a cardiologist at Loma Linda University Health's COVID Heart Clinic.

Heidari and his team treat patients with long COVID. From the start, the virus has unequally affected communities of color, putting them more at risk of getting sick and dying.

Up to a third of people who don't need to get hospitalized for COVID might still develop lasting symptoms. That number is even higher for those hospitalized.

"The best way to prevent that is to prevent getting the disease itself, and the most effective strategy to prevent that is to get vaccinated," said Heidari.

The patients that doctors are seeing now seem to mirror vaccination rates. Six months ago, across Southern California counties, about 56% of people vaccinated were white.

Blacks and Latinos trailed behind by about 17 percentage points. Now, that gap is closing. Verdugo is doing much better but offers the following advice.

"Whatever you have to do to prevent it, I would do it," he said.

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