State Watch

Black, Latino communities suffering disproportionately from coronavirus, statistics show


Emerging statistics show black and Latino communities are being disproportionately affected by the coronavirus pandemic, leading to pressure from lawmakers and others that states release the racial breakdown of their cases and deaths.

Louisiana’s Department of Health on Monday became one of the latest state entities to begin reporting a racial breakdown of their cases. It showed black people account for 70 percent of coronavirus deaths in the state, despite making up just 32 percent of the population. 

“That deserves more attention, and we’re going to have to dig into that and see what we can do to slow that trend down,” Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) said Monday, calling the figures in his state “disturbing.” 

As of Tuesday morning, at least nine states and Washington, D.C., have included a racial breakdown of their coronavirus cases. Larger states with higher reported cases of the virus, as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Department of Health and Human Services, have yet to display that data in reports.

Though Wisconsin as a state has not released that data, Milwaukee County began reporting the racial breakdown of cases Monday after ProPublica reported that African Americans accounted for nearly half of the cases and more than 80 percent of the reported deaths there.

This emerging disparity has led lawmakers and health professionals to call for a complete racial breakdown of coronavirus cases and deaths in the country. 

Democratic lawmakers a week ago sent a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, asking the department to collect racial and ethnic demographic data on testing and treatment for the coronavirus. As Congress begins to look into oversight on the country’s response to the pandemic, more lawmakers have followed suit. 

“The data already released shows troubling trends for African Americans that must be addressed to ensure public health,” said Rep. Robin Kelly (D-Ill.), chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus Health Braintrust. 

Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), the chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, noted that Latinos are disproportionately affected by conditions like heart disease and diabetes and are already more likely to lack access to health care. Castro also pointed out that the astonishing numbers in Louisiana and Milwaukee County still only account for the people who were able to obtain tests, which are scarce.  

“Locally, we are already seeing evidence that communities of color, including immigrant communities, have higher rates of coronavirus cases, even though testing is still not widely available,” he said. “We also know that Latino communities are especially vulnerable since they are more likely to be un- or underinsured, do not have equal access to health care services and less than 1 in 5 Latino workers can work from home.”

Uche Blackstock, CEO of Advancing Health Equity, noted that a significant portion of the patients she sees as a practicing emergency physician in Brooklyn fall under that umbrella. 

“I have seen in my waiting room mostly black and brown patients who are essential workers and service workers who can’t afford to stay home. These are the ones that I see presenting to the clinic with COVID-19 symptoms,” Blackstock told reporters in a conference call Monday. 

Taison Bell, a professor of medicine at the University of Virginia Medical School, said that in places where coronavirus testing is scarce for minority communities there’s been a spike in related ailments. 

“We see in states that aren’t reporting on racial demographics that there’s been a surge in patients dying from respiratory distress and respiratory failure. These are diseases that [COVID-19] causes but they’re not diagnosed as [COVID-19] because they’re unknown and aren’t tested,” Bell said.

Blackstock and Bell are two of 400 medical professionals who signed a letter from the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law pressing the Department of Health and Human Services to release data on minority access to coronavirus tests. 

The letter argues that racial data will help ensure health care providers are in compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act, which prohibit discrimination in federally funded health care institutions. 

A CDC official told The Hill the agency plans to release some figures based on race and ethnicity as soon as this week. Surgeon General Jerome Adams said Tuesday that the CDC “should be, and are tracking this virus by different demographic groups.”

However, the states with the highest numbers of cases in the country — such as New York, New Jersey and Washington — have yet to include race or ethnicity in their reports, despite including other demographic information, such as age and gender. 

The California Department of Public Health, which has reported more than 14,000 confirmed cases of the virus and at least 343 deaths, told The Hill that a racial breakdown of their cases “may be made available in the future.” New York City, which has become the epicenter of the crisis in the U.S. and has more cases than dozens of states, has not included such information in its counts, either. 

According to The New York Times, racial data for about 40 percent of U.S. cases is not available at all. 

A spokesperson for New York City’s health department told The Hill that the city is moving from gathering data from “incomplete” lab reports to electronic health records, which should render a racial breakdown of the city’s cases “in the near future.” Last week, the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus called for the state to produce racialized data in its coronavirus reports, which Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said is also not yet available because private lab tests don’t report it. 

In Michigan and Illinois — two of the earliest states to produce such data — African Americans account for about a third of coronavirus cases and about 40 percent of deaths, even though that demographic only makes up 15 and 14 percent, respectively, of the states’ total populations.

On Tuesday, Mississippi health officials said “we’re seeing similar [data] here in Mississippi that it is impacting the African American community at a little higher rate.”

In Chicago, black Americans account for 68 percent of the city’s 118 deaths and 52 percent of the roughly 5,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, despite making up just 30 percent of the city’s population, according to data from the Chicago Department of Public Health.

“Those numbers take your breath away. They really do,” Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot (D) said at a Monday news conference. “This is a call-to-action moment for all of us.”

Jessie Hellmann contributed to this report.

Tags California Coronavirus Illinois Joaquin Castro Louisiana New York Robin Kelly Wisconsin

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