Virus Outbreak Race

Erica Harris, right, and her daughter Jordan, wear their protective masks as they walk back home after getting a lunch and homework from the child’s school on Chicago’s Southside in Chicago on Tuesday. As the coronavirus tightened its grip across the country, it is cutting a particularly devastating swath through an already vulnerable population, Black Americans. — AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

Advocates and medical experts are becoming alarmed as the novel coronavirus pandemic is having a disproportionate impact on African American communities across the nation.

“As we see the incidence of coronavirus cases and actual deaths, we are beginning to notice the shocking numbers in the Black community,” Derrick Johnson, NAACP president and CEO said during a news conference this week.

“There is an overrepresentation of those who are impacted in a very negative way compared to our overall demographics.”

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Racial disparities have appeared in New York City, as well as Louisiana, Illinois and Michigan, where Blacks tested positive at higher rates and accounted for more virus-related fatalities than their makeup in those populations. And in Philadelphia, Blacks have the highest rates of coronavirus fatalities of any racial group for which the city has racial data.

Johnson said the crisis shows a lack of equity.

“This exposes the structural deficits that we’ve all known about, but when you put an accelerant like coronavirus in the midst, African Americans are disproportionately impacted, and we need solutions to address this,” he said.

“We’ve heard commentators say that the pandemic doesn’t discriminate, but we know that the structural problems we’ve had in this society for a long time is the discriminating factor.”

Experts say there are many reasons why African Americans are at higher risk for contracting the coronavirus, including the crowded, segregated communities they live in, their occupations and their lack of access to health care.

It all goes back to segregation, said Michelle Albert, president of the Association of Black Cardiologists.

“Segregation will act as a core pathway through which we see overcrowding, we see limited access to care (and) we see inability to adhere effectively to medical advice, including adhering to advice about social distancing,” she said during a webinar held by the association.

Dr. Ala Stanford, a surgeon and founder of Real Concierge Medicine, noted that African Americans tend to live in multigenerational households in densely populated areas such as inner cities, which increases their risk of contracting the coronavirus. Stanford said that it’s challenging for people living in close quarters with multiple relatives to self-isolate if someone in their home contracts COVID-19.

Stanford said African Americans are also more likely to be employed in occupations that increase their exposure — supermarket cashiers, postal workers, bus drivers, janitors and health care workers.

A report by the Economic Policy Institute indicated that Blacks and Hispanics are least likely to be able to telework.

“Your job will put you at risk,” Stanford said.

“Your home environment puts you at risk. Historical influences and your lack of trust in the medical system puts you at risk because you’re already starting at a suboptimal health status.”

Meanwhile, people with higher educational levels and better jobs generally have better health, Stanford said, “and that’s because they have insurance and they have better doctors that advocate for them.”

Almost all of the coronavirus testing sites require a referral from a physician.

“Or you have to be in the hospital so sick that they will test you while you are hospitalized,” said Glenn Ellis, a medical researcher and president of Strategies for Well Being.

“Systemically, Blacks are excluded from that because for the most part Black people don’t have doctors that they can call.”

The lack of access to medical care has been evident here. Philadelphians living in higher-income neighborhoods have been tested for the novel coronavirus six times more frequently than those living in lower-income neighborhoods, according to a study by Drexel University epidemiologist Usama Bilal.

Ellis said many African Americans also are at higher risk of suffering from complications with COVID-19 because they are disproportionately impacted by chronic health conditions such as asthma, diabetes and heart disease.

Meanwhile, Lisa A. Cooper, director of the John Hopkins Center for Health Equity, said policymakers can take action to protect the most vulnerable during this pandemic. She suggested making dormitories and hotel rooms available for people who cannot safely engage in social distancing in their own homes; ensuring that essential workers have access to personal protective equipment; and expanding health care access.

“People should know that they have paid sick leave,” Cooper said during the Association of Black Cardiologists’ webinar.

“They should know that they can get access to health care if they need it at this point in time. We need to expand health care access — make sure the health care exchanges are open for enrollment for people who lose their jobs or become furloughed.”

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