By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer

African American experts say health coverage is one of the most effective weapons in combating COVID-19 and addressing the new Omicron variant. 

Doctors have united with Covered California to urge Black Californians, who remain disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, to take action and get COVID-19 vaccinations and boosters, and enroll in affordable, comprehensive health coverage to stay healthy.  

Through the Coverage Matters tour, physicians also are sharing new data on the increased costs people face if they need emergency room care or are admitted to a hospital without health insurance.

“No one wants to end up in an emergency room or hospital, but we all know that life can change and if you do end up in the hospital, we don’t want to walk out with tens of thousands of dollars in debt,” said Dr. Alice Hm Chen, Covered California’s chief medical officer.

“This is not a theoretical issue. African Americans and other communities of color continue to be disproportionately affected by the COVID pandemic with high rates of hospitalization,” Dr. Chen said. Covered California continues to urge vaccinations for those eligible.

The struggle against COVID-19 and its impact on community health is far from over, Chen said. She added that many California hospitals’ resources are stretched by the surging Omicron variant. “Even a small winter surge of infections — and we all know that the Omicron variant is here in California — could overburden the system,” she said. That would delay care not just for people with COVID-19, but with serious issues needing immediate attention such as those experiencing mental health crises, or suffering a stroke or heart attack.

Dr. Curley L. Bonds

Dr. Chen moderated last week’s discussion. Participants including Covered California’s executive director, Peter V. Lee, and African American “health care heroes” Dr. Curley L. Bonds, chief medical officer, Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health; Dr. Justin Britton, emergency medicine, Kaiser Permanente Fontana and Ontario Medical Centers; and Dr. Kim Rhoads, associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics and director of the University of California San Francisco’s Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center’s office of community engagement. They shared insights on emergency room costs for those insured vs. uninsured, the rising rates of mental health crises among Blacks during the pandemic and continuing challenges in treating patients during COVID-19. 

“We know that African Americans are more likely to be disproportionately affected by trauma, the death of a loved one, or someone who has had a serious hospitalization,” Dr. Bonds said. “All of these things have caused an increase in rates of anxiety, depression, and people seeking services.”

Dr. Justin Britton

Dr. Bonds said L.A. County served on average more than 4,000 more patients monthly over a 12-month period than it did before the pandemic. One positive, he said, is that greater reliance on telehealth and hybrid services has increased accessibility for making appointments.

Dr. Britton talked about the importance of not just having insurance, but using it. He said it’s common for him to see patients arrive in the emergency department feeling ill, wondering why, and on examination are found to have rampant diabetes or high blood pressure.

“By the time they come, they have their heart attack or stroke,” he said. “But they know that if they had access to primary care, they would have been able to manage these conditions before they got to that point. So getting insurance is very, very important.”

Dr. Kim Rhoads

Dr. Rhoads has been lauded for pop-up vaccination clinics and her community-driven efforts to get the vaccine to vulnerable populations. Clinics are set up based on information gleaned from community partners on where Black people gather. “We’re part of a coalition that is interested in uplifting the health of the African American community and I think as that is adapted across the state, we’re going to continue to see Black people in California have higher rates of vaccinations than across the rest of the country.” Covered California emphasized that health coverage is now more affordable than ever before, thanks to the American Rescue Plan, with most people getting brand-name health plans for less than $10. Covered California’s open enrollment period runs through Jan. 31, but enrollment was required by Dec. 31 to have had coverage begin Jan. 1. For more information, visit or call (800) 300-1506.