Health experts want to make something clear about the cause and effect when observers note Black people are disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

“That higher risk exists because of generations of structural racism,” Rahma Warsame, a hematologist at Mayo Clinic, said at a virtual town hall event Thursday night. “Racism has caused Black people to have a higher rate of COVID.”

The town hall, moderated by Aaron Grier, was the second held by Rochester NAACP, along with Rochester for Justice; the Diversity Council; the Sierra Club; Rochester Initiative; Zumbro Valley Medical Society; and the Minnesota Association of African American Physicians.

The panel of African American medical professionals discussed how COVID-19 is revealing the results of systemic racism, such as inequalities in education, housing, access to health care, and other challenges that are now laid bare as COVID-19 takes a particularly harder toll on African American communities throughout the U.S.

African Americans make up under 7% of the population in Olmsted County, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

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However, the population accounts for more than 35% of COVID-19 cases in Olmsted County.

Warsame said some people try to point to other factors without any evidence to back the claim. However, the pandemic has given her and other physicians evidence to show the results of those policies.

“I’ve found my voice,” she told the panel at the beginning of the discussion. “COVID-19 has really shown me the inequities of the health care system.”

“What we’re facing isn’t biological or medical,” said Rhea Boyd, a Bay Area pediatrician. “What we’re facing is unfair, uneven distribution of resources.”

Boyd and other panel physicians explained other causes and effects that get confused, such as a mistrust some people of color have of health care workers. That mistrust is rooted in a history of unequal care, and even procedures and treatments performed on Black men and women without their consent.

She said that mistrust is often used as an excuse for medical officials to explain poorer patient outcomes for ethnic minorities.

“It’s used as a way to escape a conversation of what we should be doing,” she said.

Tamika Cross, an obstetrics and gynecology surgeon based in Houston, Texas, said the health care industry should talk about why that mistrust exists and build more diversity among health care workers.

“That goes a long way to help people relate — to have someone who looks like them, who has a similar background,” she said.

As more health care work moves online, Monica Taylor-Desir, a psychiatrist at Mayo Clinic, said providers should refrain from assuming everyone has access to technology for remote care.

To help address some of the inequities the pandemic has revealed, panel members advocated for expanded access to personal protective equipment — especially for essential workers.

“These people have higher exposures,” Warsame said. “Protecting them, too, is for our greater good."

Some panel members voiced support for universal health care.

“We need zero barriers for every single person living in this country, particularly during a pandemic,” Boyd said.

Organizers said this virtual event was the second in a series of public discussions. The first, held June 11, addressed law enforcement. Additional events have not yet been scheduled.