Dr. Taison Bell, the director of the medical intensive care unit at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, was doing rounds in the COVID-19 ICU, caring for about 20 patients, when he noticed that his unit was full almost entirely of Black and Latinx people, despite the fact that Charlottesville is 70% white.
Bell, who grew up just an hour away from the hospital, says he “just couldn’t escape the thought of this virus disproportionately killing people in my community.”
As he tells NPR’s Michel Martin on All Things Considered, he had to pause rounds and “acknowledge how tough emotionally it was for me just to see what we were seeing.”
“I didn’t know what to do about it,” he says. “I didn’t know how to deal with that emotion, but I had to get it out there because if I was feeling that way, I knew that several other of my team members were feeling the same way, too.”
The United States has been experiencing a massive surge of COVID-19 cases. Last week the new record was more than 120,000 confirmed cases a day, three days in a row, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.
Bell, who is also an assistant professor of medicine at UVA, notes that those numbers represent real people.
“At the end of the day, we’re tracking a lot of numbers because the metrics are important,” Bell says. “But we have to remember that behind that number is a story, a story of a life that either may not make it. And even if they do make it, their life may be completely different from now.”
It’s a pandemic that has infected nearly 10 million people in the country and killed more than 230,000, and it disproportionately affects Black and Latinx people in the U.S. Black Americans are dying of COVID-19 at a rate of nearly twice their share of the population. Latinx people made up a greater share of confirmed cases and deaths than their share of the population as well, according to data analyzed by NPR.
Bell says the Trump administration didn’t adequately emphasize the virus’s disproportionate impact on minority communities.
“There was an opportunity lost there to communicate the urgency, the necessity and the basic public health measures that we could take and the fact that even if it’s not in your community now, it’s likely to be in your community later,” Bell says, “so we all need to take the same sort of safety measures.”
Bell says one of the problems at play was the messaging from the Trump White House, which he says led “large segments of the country” to not take the virus seriously.
“You have to connect it to the top where in the White House, they may have been holding events outside, but very tight,” he said. “No mask, no social distancing, not setting an example of how we should be proceeding in society to control the spread of COVID-19.”
Bell says the virus has changed the nation dramatically, and that the death toll is almost impossible to fathom.
“In the minority community, it’s exposed a lot of issues in our society,” he says. “But just to think about the individuals that we’re losing and the weddings that are being missed, the barbecues, the hugs, the reunions and all of these opportunities and moments that are going to be lost because of this virus. It’s just really hard to think about.”