COVID-19 Is Crushing Black Communities. Some States Are Paying Attention.

By: and - May 27, 2020 12:00 am

People wait in line for masks and food in Harlem in New York City in April. African Americans are at much higher risk of contracting COVID-19 as whites. Some states are taking steps to diminish that gap during the pandemic, including providing additional testing and giving out personal protective equipment in vulnerable communities with large populations of minorities. Bebeto Matthews/The Associated Press

Read Stateline coverage of the latest state action on coronavirus.

As states begin to ease quarantine restrictions, epidemiologists caution that success in conquering the next wave of the pandemic largely will depend on taking extra precautions to protect the most vulnerable — the elderly and people of color.

African Americans are at much higher risk of contracting COVID-19 than the rest of the population, and they are much more likely than white people to die from the virus.

That means that unless state and local governments redouble COVID-19 prevention campaigns in predominantly black counties and neighborhoods, the disease will continue to spread, straining the health care system and increasing the risk of contagion for all Americans, warned Dr. Lisa Cooper, a professor of medicine and public health at Johns Hopkins University and international expert on health disparities.

To find out whether any states were taking concrete actions to stem COVID-19 cases and deaths in black communities, Stateline contacted the 16 states where black residents make up a larger percentage of the population than the national rate of 13%.

Most responded that they are assembling task forces and conducting studies of health disparities.

But among those states, all of which were contacted by email and phone, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, New York, South Carolina and Virginia provided the greatest detail on what they are doing to concentrate special medical resources and social services in predominantly low-income and black neighborhoods.

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They are targeting black communities for additional testing and contact tracing. They are distributing personal protective equipment, such as masks and hand sanitizers, door to door in hard-hit, predominately African American communities.

They are engaging trusted local community organizations, including black churches and historically black colleges and universities, to help with outreach. They are providing temporary housing where those infected with the virus can quarantine to avoid spreading it to the people with whom they live. And they are providing cash to compensate for lost wages when people quarantine and need food and other social services for their families.

In all but one of the 16 states, black victims made up a higher percentage of COVID-19 deaths than their percentage of the overall population, according to a Stateline analysis of data available on state public health websites.

In Delaware, African Americans accounted for one-quarter of the state’s population and the same share of its COVID-19 deaths.

South Carolina and Michigan had the largest gaps — 25 points — between the percentage of blacks in the population and the percentage of COVID-19 victims who were African American. Virginia and North Carolina had the smallest gaps: 3 points.

In Illinois and Michigan, black residents were nearly three times as likely to die of COVID-19 as the rest of the population. In South Carolina and Tennessee, they are nearly twice as likely to die of the virus, according to the Stateline analysis.

Incomplete Data

It is too early to tell whether state and local initiatives will temper the appalling toll COVID-19 is extracting from black communities. But state officials’ focus on the issue in both red and blue states signals an awareness that immediate action is required to make a difference.

“I’m not saying Virginia is getting it right in every area or that we are where we want to be,” said Janice Underwood, the state’s first Cabinet-level director of diversity, equity and inclusion. “But we’re certainly not where we used to be.”

The reasons for the disproportionate number of cases and deaths in black communities are well-known. Blacks have a higher rate of underlying conditions such as diabetes, asthma and high blood pressure that make COVID-19 more dangerous.  They also are more likely to work in frontline jobs, live in crowded housing and use public transportation, increasing their exposure to the virus.

“These problems have been going on for a long time,” Cooper said. “A lot of folks are acting surprised by this. It’s not because of their race that this is happening. The virus isn’t going after black people. It’s because of structural inequities that have led to poor health and greater exposure to the virus.”

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Michael Ollove

Michael Ollove covers health care for Stateline. Ollove worked for many years at The Baltimore Sun, as an enterprise reporter and an editor.

Christine Vestal

Christine Vestal covers mental health and drug addiction for Stateline. Previously, she covered health care for McGraw-Hill and the Financial Times.