GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOTV)- In just a little over a month since the first case of community spread, the coronavirus infected more than 450,000 people across the country. And early indications are that African Americans and Hispanics are disproportionately being affected by the virus and the illness it causes: COVID-19.
A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) analyzed data from a handful of states and found that among patients for whom information on race and ethnicity was available, black Americans were hospitalized at higher rates than whites for COVID-19.
Other states released their own data showing that African Americans are dying at disproportional rates from COVID-19. What’s more, in New York City, the U.S. community hardest hit by the virus, more Hispanics per capita are succumbing to the illness than any other ethnic group.
“The data is clear and has been clear for decades: African Americans, Latinos and other minority groups live sicker and die younger,” says Stephen Thomas, professor of health policy and management and director of the Maryland Center for Health Equity at the University of Maryland School of Public Health. “We cannot close our eyes or put up blinders to the disproportionate impact of this disease on racial and ethnic minority communities.”
Chronic conditions exacerbate health outcomes
Many leading health experts point to underlying medical conditions, including heart disease and diabetes, as one explanation for why minority populations are seeing high rates of sickness and death from COVID-19. These conditions are more common in black and Hispanic Americans. They also happen to be leading risk factors for severe illness from the coronavirus.
“We have a particularly difficult problem of an exacerbation of a health disparity,” Anthony Fauci, M.D., director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said at a recent White House coronavirus task force briefing. “The things that get people into [intensive care]” and require them to be put on a ventilator — something that often leads to death — are the very factors, Fauci said, “that are, unfortunately, disproportionately prevalent in the African American population.”
Better messaging, data and testing could help
There needs to be better communication about the virus in minority communities, “so that everyone understands what it’s going to take for us all to protect one another,” White House coronavirus task force response coordinator Deborah Birx, M.D., said at a recent news briefing.
Thomas acknowledges that messaging is vital but says that “the messenger can be more important.”
In minority areas, credible messengers often “don’t have M.D.’s behind their name; they don’t have Ph.D.’s behind their name,” he explains. “They may be the local barber or the local stylist in the hair salon. They have tremendous trust and credibility.”
But social distancing guidelines and stay-at-home orders mean that most barbershops, churches and community centers are closed. This has left a big gap in communication channels in neighborhoods across the country, Thomas says. “Who’s making sure that they have the information, the evidence-based information, to help dispel myths, to shut down conspiracy theories and to ensure that African Americans recognize, ‘Hey, this disease is affecting us’?” he adds.
In New York City, the U.S. community hardest hit by the virus, more Hispanics per capita are succumbing to the illness than any other ethnic group.
Beyond culturally relevant communication strategies, experts say more data — especially statistics that break down COVID-19’s impact by race and ethnicity — are also important. Knowing who is “in the crosshairs of the epidemic” can lead to more testing sites and health services in the areas that need it most, Thomas says.
“That’s what we have to do right now, to bend the curve,” observes Carlos Rodríguez-Díaz, associate professor of prevention and community health at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health. “We need to bring resources to the community, because we know what’s happening.”
Economic factors complicate the problem
There are also social and economic elements at play, according to experts. Without a vaccine or approved drug therapies, health officials say one of the best ways to decrease the risk of infection from the coronavirus is to keep a physical distance from other people and to stay home as much as possible. But for many in minority communities, that is not an option.
“If you work and you cannot work from home, then you have to make a very difficult decision” about how you are going to put food on the table and pay rent, Rodríguez-Díaz says. “And, therefore, you probably decide to risk your health and expose yourself or your family by actually working.”
Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that less than 20 percent of black workers and roughly 16 percent of Hispanic ones are able to telecommute. About two-thirds of employed Hispanic adults say they would not get paid if the coronavirus caused them to miss work for two weeks or more, a Pew Research Center survey found.
“African Americans and Latinos and other minority groups are the ones out there in the warehouse, emptying food trucks, delivering your Grubhub or Uber Eats. They’re out there at risk” for catching the coronavirus, Thomas says.
Health experts, including Birx, stress that while African Americans and other minority groups are not more inherently susceptible to getting infected by the coronavirus, they are more likely to have a harder time recovering if they are infected.
“We experience social factors that are constantly putting us in a disadvantaged place to respond to an epidemic and to recover from diseases,” Rodríguez-Díaz says, pointing to unstable housing and lack of access to health care as two of the circumstances that aggravate health outcomes and disproportionately affect minority populations. “Social factors represent a significant [role] in our ability to be healthy. And if we don’t have access to those social resources, then we are in worse conditions to deal with a pandemic.”
For the latest coronavirus news and advice go to AARP.org/coronavirus.