Coronavirus is disproportionately affecting black Americans and eliciting calls for more data — here's what you need to know

Kamilah Newton
·8 min read
Early data has suggested that black Americans are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus. (Getty Images)
Early data has suggested that black Americans are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus. (Getty Images)

During a press briefing this week at the White House, Anthony Fauci — director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Disease — spoke out about growing concerns surrounding racial disparities in deaths from COVID-19. “We will get over coronavirus, but there will still be health disparities which we really do need to address in the African-American community,” he said.

He’s far from the first to express concern.

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Over the past week, both individuals and organizations have publicly requested that states release the statistics that show which communities are being hit the hardest by COVID-19. New York Times journalist Charles M. Blow is one of them. In a call to action on his Instagram account — which received nearly 20,000 views — he encouraged leaders and citizens to “demand the release of race-specific COVID-19 data for New York City.” His request prompted a quick response, allowing him to post the racial demographics on Twitter shortly after.

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Lawmakers are speaking out too.

Last week, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted, “COVID deaths are disproportionately spiking in Black + Brown communities,” and called for coronavirus legislation to consider reparations. “Inequality is a comorbidity. COVID relief should be drafted with a lens of reparations,” she wrote. The Bronx native went on to explain in another tweet: “Why? Because the chronic toll of redlining, environmental racism, wealth gap, etc. ARE underlying health conditions.”

Related Video: Why Black Americans Appear to Be More Affected by COVID-19

Finally, in a statement signed by 400 medical professionals, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law issued a demand letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) calling for “the release of racial and ethnic demographic data related to COVID-19 testing, cases, and patient outcomes.”

As individuals continue to advocate for more transparency, here are some key takeaways about how race is impacting the outcomes of this pandemic.

Black communities are being disproportionately impacted.

Recently released data shows that African-Americans in some parts of the country are becoming infected and dying from COVID-19 at higher rates than their white counterparts. In Illinois, African-Americans make up 14.6 percent of the population, but 29.4 percent of confirmed cases and 41.2 percent of deaths as of April 6. Furthermore, Michigan’s population is 14 percent black, but African-Americans currently make up 34 percent of COVID-19 cases and 40 percent of deaths.

Additionally, on April 3, ProPublica reported that in Milwaukee County, Wisc., where the population is 26 percent black, African-Americans currently comprise “almost half of [the] county’s 941 cases and 81 percent of its 27 deaths.” Experts say the data coming out of these states is likely indicative of the disproportionate impact that COVID-19 is having on marginalized communities throughout the entire country.

The federal government has since acknowledged the disparities.

President Trump raised the topic of racial disparities in the coronavirus death toll this week, calling it a “real problem.” He passed the conversation along to Fauci, who compared the coronavirus outbreak’s disproportionate death toll among black Americans to the impact of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. “I see a similarity here because health disparities have always existed for the African-American community,” he said. “Here again with the crisis, how it’s shining a bright light on how unacceptable that is because, yet again, when you have a situation like the coronavirus, they are suffering disproportionately.”

Racism and bias in the health care system may be fueling it.

During Fauci’s press conference, he quoted and agreed with Deborah Birx, response coordinator for the White House coronavirus task force, that it’s less about how many black Americans have coronavirus and more about how they’re responding. “It’s not that [African-Americans] are getting infected more often, it’s that when they do get infected, their underlying medical conditions — diabetes, hypertension, obesity, asthma — those are the kind of things that wind them up in the ICU and ultimately give him a higher death rate,” said Fauci.

However, many say there are more factors at play. Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law said in a statement to Yahoo Lifestyle, “We are deeply concerned that African-American communities are being hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, and that racial bias may be impacting the access they receive to testing and health care.”

The committee expanded on the concept in its letter to the HHS and CDC. “Systemic racism and bias in the healthcare system have resulted in chronically poor health outcomes for Black Americans, including higher rates of asthma, high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes,” the letter reads. “These co-morbidities render Black Americans more susceptible to severe respiratory complications and death resulting from COVID-19. Inclusive testing practices would help ensure that symptomatic people receive timely care and treatment, and asymptomatic carriers do not continue to transmit COVID-19 to other vulnerable members of their communities.”

Lack of access to testing may also be a contributing factor.

On a call with Yahoo Lifestyle, Uché Blackstock, MD, a New York emergency physician and founder/CEO of Advancing Health Equity, expanded on the issues of unequal access to testing and paid time off. “I have seen in my exam rooms, mostly black and brown patients who are essential workers and service workers who cannot afford to stay home. These are the ones that I see presenting to the clinic with COVID-19 symptoms.”

Furthermore, she says, “Widespread testing isn’t accessible to these patients ... and we already know that our health care system is embedded with bias. We have data already that [shows] black patients are likely to receive worse care from the minority-serving hospitals in their areas that are ill-equipped for dealing with COVID 19 patients.”

Clarke agrees, saying, “Only 20 percent of black workers in the country are able to work from home, compared to roughly one-third of their white counterparts. African-American communities face a higher degree of risk exposure. Private COVID-19 testing is cost-prohibitive, making it very difficult for low-income communities and particularly people of color to get tested.”

Not enough states are making data available to the public.

Although racial demographics are typically released during health crises, the CDC is not currently publicly reporting racial or ethnic demographic data for COVID-19 cases or tests performed across the country. However, the CDC is trying to correct this, requesting this critical information from health departments through the COVID-19 case report form “to track the impact of the outbreak and inform public health response.” The Lawyers’ Committee’s call to action “urges the federal and state agencies to begin publicly reporting this information immediately.”

Transparency is critical to ensuring equal access to healthcare.

Clarke of the Lawyers’ Committee said: “Equal access to health care is a critical civil rights issue, and during this novel pandemic, the public deserves nothing less than full transparency from this administration and state public health officials. To fully confront this pandemic, we must ensure that communities of color receive equitable health care and treatment during this crisis. Comprehensive and publicly available racial data is a necessary weapon in the fight to confront COVID-19.”

Blackstock said, “The importance of being able to collect racial-ethnic demographic data in this pandemic is that we will be able to see which groups are going to be most harshly affected, and we already have preliminary data on that, but we need to know in order to allocate health care resources most equitably.”

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC and WHO’s resource guides.

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