Early Data Shows African Americans Have Contracted and Died of Coronavirus at an Alarming Rate.  The problem is, there’s been little data to confirm this fact.

(Updated 04/07/20)

After Actor Idris Elba contracted COVID-19, he took to social media with a message.

“Black people, please, please, please understand that coronavirus, you can get it,” Elba said, trying to quash early rumors swirling through cyberspace. “There are so many stupid, ridiculous conspiracy theories about Black people not being able to get it. That’s dumb, stupid. All right? That is the quickest way to get more Black people killed.”

Elba may be correct.  It appears as though the virus is having a larger impact on African Americans, but it’s a fact that’s hard to confirm since so little data is being collected on the racial demographics of those impacted by the disease. 

Some U.S. physicians and researchers who study the intersection of race and health are joining Elba in sounding the alarm: The highly contagious and potentially deadly virus sweeping across the country is going to hit hard in the Black community.

Escalation in Black Communities

The past week has seen an escalation of cases in heavily African American communities such as Detroit, New Orleans, Chicago and Milwaukee, just to name a few. 

As of Friday morning, African Americans made up almost half of Milwaukee County’s 945 cases and 81% of its 27 deaths in a county whose population is 26% black. Milwaukee is one of the few places in the United States that is tracking the racial breakdown of people who have been infected by the novel coronavirus, offering a glimpse at the disproportionate destruction it is inflicting on black communities nationwide.

In Michigan, where the state’s population is 14% black, African Americans made up 35% of cases and 40% of deaths as of Friday morning. Detroit, where a majority of residents are black, has emerged as a hot spot with a high death toll. As has New Orleans. Louisiana has not published case breakdowns by race, but 40% of the state’s deaths have happened in Orleans Parish, where the majority of residents are black.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo last week called the virus “the great equalizer,” because anyone can get it. And while it’s true everyone’s at risk, New York itself is a stark illustration of just how unequal the virus’ toll really is.  The highest concentration of cases in New York City are in neighborhoods in Queens with large immigrant populations and low average incomes, according to city data analyzed by the Wall Street Journal.

The county that contains Charlotte, N.C. is about 33% Black, but Black residents make up roughly 44% of its coronavirus cases, according to the Charlotte Observer.

In Illinois, African Americans make up 14.6% of the population, but 28% of confirmed cases.

Illinois and North Carolina are two of the few areas publishing statistics on COVID-19 cases by race, and their data shows a disproportionate number of African Americans were infected.

In Wyandotte County, the county with the highest percentage of African Americans in the State of Kansas, is experiencing the experiencing the highest per capita rate of infection in the state, with 90.7 cases per 100,000 residents, compared to a statewide rate of 24.1 cases per 100,000 residents and a Missouri statewide rate of 37.6 cases per 100,000 residents.

Researchers would need better data to fully confirm this trend, but these initial signals from multiple cities align with almost everything we know about who’s most at risk.

Why the Black community

  • “Even though we can’t necessarily perfectly understand the racial disparities in COVID risk and death once infected, we know all the other risk factors that increase the risk of getting covid and increase the risk of complications are higher for these groups,” said Hedwig Lee, a researcher at Washington University in St. Louis.

A slew of pre-existing disparities are contributing to this coronavirus disparity.

  • African-Americans are more likely to have several underlying health conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, hypertension and some cancers that can make COVID-19 infections more severe.
  • Lower-income areas — which tend to have larger non-white populations — have less access to health care services and the quality of that care is often worse than what wealthier parts of the countries receive.
  • Lower-income workers are less likely to have health insurance. They’re also less likely to be able to work from home, and therefore more likely to have to keep going to work and putting themselves at risk.
  • Substandard housing, multiple families living together, and homelessness all facilitate the virus’ spread.

Call for Gathering of Demographic Data

Democratic lawmakers are calling out an apparent lack of racial data that they say is needed to monitor and address disparities in the national response to the coronavirus outbreak.

In a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, both from Massachusetts, said comprehensive demographic data on people who are tested or treated for the virus that causes COVID-19 does not exist.

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