Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Georgia, Atlanta USA March 6, 2020.

The Politics of CDC Public Health Guidance During COVID-19

A version of this post first ran in Ms. Magazine on October 28, 2020. It has been adapted slightly for Bill of Health. 

By Aziza Ahmed

In recent months, public health guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has become a site of political reckoning.

The agency has taken an enormous amount of heat from a range of institutions, including the executive and the public, during the COVID-19 pandemic. The former has sought to intervene in public health guidance to ensure that the CDC presents the President and administration’s response to COVID-19 in a positive light. The latter consists of opposed factions that demand more rigorous guidance, or, its opposite, less stringent advice.

Importantly, these tensions have revealed how communities experience the pandemic differently. CDC guidance has produced divergent consequences, largely depending on demographics. These differences have been particularly pronounced along racial lines.

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Grocery store.

COVID-19 Highlights the Vital Connection Between Food and Health

By Browne C. Lewis

Together, food insecurity and COVID-19 have proven to be a deadly combination for Black and Brown people.

Data published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that COVID-19 hospitalization rates among Black and Latino populations have been approximately 4.7 times the rate of their white peers. The CDC suggests that a key driver of these disparities are inequities in the social determinants of health.

Healthy People 2020 defines social determinants of health as “conditions in the environments in which people are born, live, learn, work, play, worship, and age that affect a wide range of health, functioning, and quality-of-life outcomes and risks.” The lack of access to good quality food is one of the main social determinants of health. People who eat unhealthy food are more likely to have diet-related medical conditions, like hypertension and diabetes, that make them more susceptible to developing severe or fatal COVID-19.

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Janitor mopping floor in hallway office building or walkway after school and classroom silhouette work job with sun light background.

Overworked, Overlooked, and Unprotected: Domestic Workers and COVID-19

By Mariah A. Lindsay*

The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected communities already facing multiple oppressions, including women, people of color, people living with low incomes, and immigrants.

This post focuses on the impacts of the pandemic on a group that encompasses many of these identities: domestic workers, such as home health care workers, house cleaners, and child care workers.

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a crowd of people shuffling through a sidewalk

COVID-19 Immunity as Passport to Work Will Increase Economic Inequality

By Ifeoma Ajunwa

As scientists develop increasingly accurate tests for COVID-19 immunity, we must be on guard as to potential inequities arising from their use, particularly with respect to their potential application as a prerequisite for returning to the workplace.

A focus on immunity as a yardstick for return to work will only serve to widen the gulf of economic inequality, especially in countries like the U.S., which has severe racial health care disparities and uneven access to effective healthcare. This focus could also serve to diminish societal support for further understanding and curtailing the disease.

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abortion protest outside supreme court.

The COVID-19 Pandemic Reveals the Stakes of the Campaign Against Abortion

By Mary Ziegler

Once again, we’re talking about whether abortion counts as health care. The COVID-19 pandemic has sparked new efforts to limit access, from the government’s unwillingness to lift in-person requirements for medication abortion to the introduction of stay-at-home orders blocking access altogether. The campaign to frame abortion as a moral, not medical, issue began decades ago. The pandemic has revealed the broader stakes of this campaign — and what it might mean for access to care well after the worst of the pandemic is behind us.

For antiabortion leaders, there are obvious strategic reasons to insist that abortion is not health care. The stigma surrounding abortion is real and durable. Notwithstanding recent increases, many obstetric programs do not provide comprehensive abortion training (if they provide any training at all). A 2020 study in Plos One found that a majority of patients believed that they would be looked down upon “at least a little” for having had an abortion. This perceived stigma affects those refused abortions — and causes longer-term adverse mental health outcomes. Stigma has long been an effective tool for the antiabortion movement. The pandemic has done nothing to change that.

But, put in historical context, today’s effort to treat reproductive services as unessential means much more. That campaign is part of a broader agenda to undermine the idea of an autonomy-rooted abortion rights — and lay the groundwork for overturning Roe v. Wade.

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Society or population, social diversity. Flat cartoon vector illustration.

Unequal Representation: Race, Sex, and Trust in Medicine — COVID-19 and Beyond

By Allison M. Whelan*

The COVID-19 pandemic has given renewed importance and urgency to the need for racial and gender diversity in clinical trials.

The underrepresentation of women in clinical research throughout history is a well-recognized problem, particularly for pregnant women. This stems, in part, from paternalism, a lack of respect for women’s autonomy, and concerns about women’s “vulnerability.” It harms women’s health as well as their dignity.

Over the years, FDA rules and guidance have helped narrow these gaps, and recent data suggest that women’s enrollment in clinical trials that were used to support new drug approvals was equal to or greater than men’s enrollment. Nevertheless, there is still progress to be made, especially for pregnant women. In the context of COVID-19 research, one review of 371 interventional trials found that 75.8% of drug trials declared pregnancy as an exclusion criteria, a concerning statistic given that recent data suggest that contracting COVID-19 during pregnancy may increase the risk of preterm birth.

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