Story at a glance
- A handful of states have released data on the demographics of COVID-19 patients, including race.
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not released racial data for coronavirus cases nationwide.
- Many public health officials and experts are concerned the pandemic will take a disproportionate toll on nonwhite communities.
Historically racist structures in the United States have set up black Americans to bear the brunt of many crises, from climate change to the novel coronavirus. Early data shows black people are being infected and dying at higher rates than other demographics. One state is doing something about it.
The population of Milwaukee County, Wis., is 26 percent black. But early data shows black patients make up almost half of the county’s 945 cases and 81 percent of its 27 deaths from coronavirus.
“We’re like, ‘We have to wake people up,’” Milwaukee Health Commissioner Jeanette Kowalik told ProPublica.
Collecting and reporting this data is just the first step toward addressing racial inequality in COVID-19 relief efforts in Milwaukee, where local leaders have been working to address inequities in public health since before the pandemic.
“We declared racism as a public health issue,” Kowalik told ProPublica. “It frames not only how we do our work but how transparent we are about how things are going. It impacts how we manage an outbreak.”
The phenomenon isn’t unique to Milwaukee.
Michigan has a population of nearly 10 million people, according to 2019 estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. About 75 percent of the population is white, while 15 percent are black and 5 percent is Hispanic or Latino. Yet African Americans made up 35 percent of coronavirus cases and 40 percent of deaths as of April 3, according to ProPublica.
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Black patients made up 29.4 percent of cases in Illinois, slightly more than the 27.9 percent of white patients. Hispanic patients were the next biggest demographic, accounting for nearly 10 percent of cases. Race was not reported for about 25 percent of cases. In comparison, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that about 61 percent of Illinois’ more than 12 million population is white, almost 15 percent is black and 17 percent is Hispanic or Latino.
And in North Carolina, where almost 63 percent of an almost 10.5 million population is white, white patients made up 56 percent of cases. Black patients, who make up a little more than 22 percent of the population, accounted for 38 percent of cases while 9 percent were Hispanic, compared to about a 10 percent Hispanic or Latino population in the state.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has not yet released racial data for coronavirus cases nationwide. In a letter to Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar on March 27, five congressional Democrats urged the federal government to begin collecting and release this information to allow public health officials to begin addressing any inequities.
“This lack of information will exacerbate existing health disparities and result in the loss of lives in vulnerable communities. It will also hamper the efforts of public health officials to track and contain the novel coronavirus in the areas that are at the highest risk of continued spread,” read the letter signed by Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Ayanna Pressley, Robin Kelly, Kamala D. Harris and Cory Booker.
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