WASHINGTON – Very many black Americans dying of the corona virus at a much higher rate compared to other Americans in several major cities, but most federal and state officials do not track or release racial data in coronavirus victims, raising concerns about concern for the country’s most vulnerable population.
With coronavirus cases and related deaths soaring in cities with significant black populations, including New Orleans, Detroit and New York, civil rights groups and Democratic lawmakers say federal health officials must release racial data to ensure resources and information reaches all affected communities by the plague.
“This is a critical issue for us that we are raising and we are sounding the alarm,” said Hardie Davis, Jr., president of the Association of African-American Mayors and mayor of Augusta, Georgia.
Fewer states have released information, including Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, New Jersey and North Carolina. Data from these countries shows black people are dying at a proportionally higher rate compared to whites.
In Illinois, for example, there were 12,262 cases of corona virus Monday and 307 deaths, according to the state Department of Public Health. Of the confirmed cases, 29.4% were black, 27.5% were white, 9.4% were Hispanic, 3.34% were Asian and 24.4% were left blank. Of the deaths, 42% were black, 37.1% were white, 7.5% were Hispanic, 7% were blank, and 4.2% were Asian. About 15% of the state population is black, while white is 77% of the state, according to the Census.
In Michigan, the numbers are also bleak, with African-Americans accounting for only 14% of the state population, but 33% of COVID-19 cases and 41% of deaths.
In Louisiana, one of the hardest-hit states in the country, 70% of deaths related to coronavirus are African-American and 29% are white, according to the state health department. As of Monday, there were 14,867 cases in the entire state and 512 deaths. African-Americans make up 32% of the state population.
Louisiana Governor Bel Edwards called the difference “disturbing.”
“Obviously, this is a big difference and we will try to find out what is caused and what we can do about it as soon as possible,” Edwards told a press conference Monday.
African American maybe susceptible to complications from coronavirus because many tend to suffer from underlying health conditions, including asthma and diabetes. But advocates are also worried that minorities in the US do not receive adequate information about the disease, or access to testing.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said they were collecting racial data provided by the state. Some of the data is incomplete and some have not been submitted. The agency is waiting for more information before compiling. A spokesman said the CDC will release information on COVID-19 hospitalization this weekend which includes data on race and ethnicity.
Health experts, advocates, civil rights groups, and congressional MPs also urged that Human Services Secretary Alex Azar release national data based on race.
Information about gender was reported so why not compete too, said US Representative Robin Kelly, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus Health Braintrust. Kelly said the first person to die of a coronavirus in Illinois was an African-American woman.
The facts will inform policy and programming and what resources are needed and where, said Kelly, who, along with Democratic Representatives Ayanna Pressley from Massachusetts and Sens. Cory Booker from New Jersey, Kamala Harris from California and Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts, sent a letter to the federal Department of Health and Human Services requesting the agency to collect and release racial data.
“We need to make sure we are ready,” Kelly told USA TODAY.
MPs want to know who is being tested for coronavirus
Lovely Warren, mayor of Rochester, New York, said local officials needed racial data to find out where to channel resources.
He said the first coronavirus death last month in Monroe County, which included Rochester, was a 57-year-old African-American man. He said he knew it was only because the family released information on Facebook.
As of Monday, the area had 543 cases and 26 deaths. He said his city, the third largest in the state, is expected to see more deaths in April. Meanwhile, New York, one of the hardest-hit states, has not released racial data about the deceased.
“Without everyone reporting the data, you cannot see the magnitude of the problem,” said Warren, second vice president of the African American Mayor’s Association.
Maryland Governor Larry Hogan directed his state Department of Health this week to provide racial details for all Maryland cases, including testing, hospitalization and mortality. He noted that most of the testing was carried out by private doctors through private laboratories outside the country.
New Jersey officials released data Monday that recorded a race for 729 of the 1,232 deaths. Of those, 60% were white, 24% were black, 5% were Asian, and 11% were other. New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said the aim was to add more racial data to ensure all residents get proper treatment.
“Always, there are people who are left behind,” he told a news conference. “More often than not, the population that is left behind is far more represented by the colored community.”
The Hispanic Caucus Congress also urged the release of more racial data. Hispanics, who are more likely than other groups to not have health insurance, also tend to have poor health which can make them vulnerable to corona virus.
American representative A. Joaquain Castro, D-Texas, chair of the caucus, said the colored community has long suffered from health disparities, “but you cannot improve what you don’t measure.”
Who is dying of coronavirus?
What we know about who is dying of coronavirus seems to be inconsistent because some countries are slow to report, meaning information across states is not always up to date, advocates say. Davis, mayor of Augusta, Georgia, said on Monday that he was told by local health officials that there were 266 cases of corona virus in his area, but the government website had a lower number.
“There is a gap between reporting that occurs, between testing that takes place in the local community, versus what the state reports,” he said.
InLouisiana, the Department of Health said it reported racial damage to deaths every week, although officials said they could expand racial reporting to all positive cases.
The department’s main coronavirus expert, Dr. Alex Billioux, said the high death rate of African-Americans is probably a result of the Louisiana black population suffering from a number of underlying conditions that contribute to COVID-19 deaths, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity. Billioux said the country would do more research into disparities and form strategies to overcome them.
“Unfortunately, we know that there are significant racial health inequalities in the state,” Billioux said.
Colored communities have long faced gaps in the health care system in part because of discrimination, poor health and inadequate insurance coverage. This in particular has hurt African-Americans in the Deep South, where most of the country’s black population is concentrated, health experts say.
“This shows a structural deficit that we all already know, but when you place the corona virus such as an accelerator in the middle where African-Americans are affected differently,” it demands a solution to overcome this, “Derrick Johnson, national NAACP president.
Advocates say it is unclear why some countries have released information and others have not.
“What we know is that race is important and we need this data to inform an effective response to a pandemic,” said Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights under the Law.
Clarke points to the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits federal funded institutions, including health service providers, from racial based discrimination. Having data is the key to determining whether institutions comply, he said.
African-Americans need to know that they are at risk
Officials said the data could also help ensure credible messages enter the black community, where a myth asserting that African-Americans could not get the corona virus was initially rooted based on initial testing results that showed many white American parents sick.
In some communities, the message of social distance doesn’t seem to be about home, with people still playing basketball, throwing card parties and hosting sleepovers, said the black mayor.
That message, said Warren, mayor of Rochester, may have to go beyond, “just stay at home.”
“I don’t think our community takes it as seriously as they should and the data will be able to help us bring the message home more,” he said.
Michael McAfee, CEO of PolicyLink, a research institute focused on racial justice, said he feared this might be the first wave of death for African-Americans if more was not done.
“Think about how we see this spread in Louisiana. Think about what the massacre was doing in Detroit, only the places we know are mostly black, “he said.” This won’t be a good result. “
Contributing: Greg Hilburn, headquarters reporter for Louisiana USA TODAY Network; Jennifer Dixon and Darcie Moran from the Detroit Free Press; Lucas Gonzalez from Salisbury Daily Times; Ashley Balcerzak, head office reporter with The Bergen Record; and Joseph Spector, Head of the Albany USA TODAY Network Bureau.
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