MIT researchers found obesity, poverty and smoking weren’t correlated to the high incidence rate of COVID-19 in African Americans.

Covid-19 rarely assaults children with the force it uses against adults, especially older people. But some kids who have been infected with the coronavirus develop a potentially fatal condition that brings fever, shock and organ failure. For some reason, this rare “multisystem inflammatory syndrome” afflicts Black children at significantly higher rates than White children.

The disparity is not confined to children. Across the U.S., Covid-19 poses a broader threat to people of African ancestry. Studies and data from several states show that Black Americans contract coronavirus at rates much higher than their share of the population. Their death rates are higher, too, especially in middle age; adjusted for age, Black death rates are 3.6 times those of Whites. Medicare data suggest that, among elderly Americans, being Black is a Covid-19 risk factor almost as great as being over the age of 85.

Why? The precise reasons are unknown. Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management professor Christopher Knittel and graduate research assistant Bora Ozaltun analyzed daily Covid-19 death rates for a nearly two-month period for counties and states to understand the correlation between Covid-19 deaths and patients’ typical commutes, exposure to pollution, race and other factors.

While African Americans are dying at higher rates than White people, the researchers found obesity, poverty and smoking weren’t correlated to those deaths. Diabetes was ruled out, too.

“We must examine other possibilities, such as systemic racism that impacts African Americans, quality of insurance, hospitals, and healthcare, or other underlying health conditions that are not in the model, and then urge policymakers to look at other ways to solve the problem.”

“The reason why African Americans face higher death rates is not because they have higher rates of uninsured, poverty, diabetes,” said Knittel. “It could be because the quality of their insurance is lower, the quality of their hospitals is lower, or some other systemic reason. Our analysis can hopefully allow policymakers to focus on a narrower set of potential causal links.”

The MIT researchers’ work comes as Covid-19 cases are on the rise in several states and in African American communities. According to data compiled by the COVID Tracking Project and Boston University for the COVID Racial Data tracker, Black people represent 13% of the U.S. population but account for 23% of the known deaths from the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

More than 26,708 Black people have died in the U.S. pandemic, and four of the five counties with the highest death rates from Covid-19 are predominantly Black. In counties where Black people are the majority, MIT found they’re dying at rates close to 10 times higher than White counties.

It would help to have better data on Covid-19 by race, as scientists and members of Congress have been demanding. To date, more than 40% of COVID cases in the Centers for Disease Control database lack basic race and ethnicity data — in part because states and private laboratories have not reported the information. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has promised to mandate the reporting of more detailed demographic data, but not until Aug. 1.

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