When Theirrien Clark's wife dropped him off at Maryland's Howard County General Hospital on March 20 for a quick imaging test and waited in the parking lot for his return, neither was unduly concerned. The couple had been diagnosed with COVID-19 a few days earlier but were experiencing relatively mild symptoms while recovering at home. Clark's doctor ordered the test as a precaution because his cough wasn't getting better.
Only Clark, 58, never came back to the car that night. A chest X-ray showed he was in lung failure; the doctors needed to insert a breathing tube immediately.
"I was halfway out of it from the medication and let me tell you, my eyes woke up really quickly when they said that,” says Clark, who was transferred to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, where he remained on a ventilator for four weeks and stayed for 46 days.
Clark is part of a demographic that has been devastated by the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic: He's 50-plus and Black.
Ninety-five percent of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. have occurred in adults 50 and older, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Add to that the fact that Black Americans are nearly five times more likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19 compared to their white peers. They're also twice as likely to die from it.
"When you put that together, it's not hard [to see]: Older Blacks are at the highest risk of mortality for this disease,” says Robert Joseph Taylor, the Harold R. Johnson endowed professor of social work and director of the Program for Research on Black Americans at the University of Michigan.
In fact, a Kaiser Health News analysis of federal data found that Black Americans ages 65 to 74 died of COVID-19 five times as often as white people in the same age group between Feb. 1 and Aug. 8. For people ages 75 to 84, the death rate for Blacks was 3.5 times higher.
"It really is unconscionable that Black people are, in many ways, bearing the brunt of COVID-19. The impact of this pandemic will last for years to come; not only because of the morbidity and mortality caused, but also because of the economic devastation suffered by these families,” says Edna Kane Williams, senior vice president for multicultural leadership at AARP. “We really must use this terrible experience to become better prepared for the future. This shouldn't and can't happen again."
Insurance, income influence treatment
When Clark was wheeled out of the intensive care unit at Johns Hopkins Hospital, the doctors and nurses who kept him alive while his body battled the infection lined the hallways to cheer him on. “They were clapping and crying,” he says. “I was their longest and sickest patient that they had in the ICU.”
But Clark acknowledges that the top-notch medical care he received — where the hospital staff became like “family” when he was separated from his own — is not available to everyone.
"We have a lot of family and friends who just didn't have that same experience because, you know, different resources and different economic factors,” says Marcy Clark, his wife, who in part credits her husband's survival to good health insurance and proximity to health services.