In US, Virus Disproportionately Hits Poor People of Color

(AP) — Chicago’s mayor pledged an aggressive public health campaign aimed at the city’s black and brown communities Monday amid alarm that an overwhelming number of African American residents were among the people to die of Covid-19.

Black residents accounted for 72% of deaths from Covid-19 complications in Chicago and 52% of positive tests for the coronavirus, despite making up only 30% of the city’s population, according to the city’s public health agency.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot announces the “We Are Not Playing” campaign at Soldier Field on Monday, focused on getting help for poor neighborhoods. (Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Chicago Sun-Times via AP)

Public health experts in Chicago said the trend was unsurprising to anyone familiar with decades-old barriers to health care in the geographically divided city; residents of the city’s South and West sides historically have poorer access to health care, higher poverty rates and jobs that require them to keep showing up while others are able to work from home.

Similar conditions affect other large cities with large black populations that are hot spots for the coronavirus, including New York, Detroit, Milwaukee and New Orleans. Figures released Monday by Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services showed African Americans, who make up 14% of the state population, make up about 33% of cases statewide and 41% of deaths.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot said the disparities in Chicago “take your breath away” and require an immediate response from the city, community activists and health-care providers.

A new team of city and community representatives will focus on contacting residents who are older than 50 and those considered vulnerable to the virus because of other health conditions to share information about prevention and resources for those who become ill.

The city’s transit system will increase monitoring on its buses and add vehicles to routes still being heavily used, and city inspectors will visit groceries and corner stores to enforce social distancing limits, she said.

“We can’t simply stand by and let this disease wreak havoc in our communities,” Lightfoot said. “Lives are truly at stake.”

The city’s public health commissioner ordered all health-care providers in the city to collect data on Covid-19 patients’ race and ethnicity, seeking to address health-care gaps. The department’s leader, Dr. Allison Arwady, said one-quarter of testing results sent to her agency so far have not included that information.

A national civil rights group on Monday said that’s a problem across the country and demanded more transparency on race and ethnicity in Covid-19 testing results, cases and patient outcomes reported by federal health authorities and state health agencies.

“Equal access to health care is a critical civil rights issue, and during this novel pandemic, the public deserves nothing less than full transparency from this administration and state public health officials,” Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said in a statement.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker told reporters at his daily Covid-19 briefing that Illinois is responding to the disease’s impact on minorities by “reopening hospitals that are in those communities” and by targeting “directly into the African American community” social media messages promoting social distancing.

Pritzker apparently was referring to temporarily using three shuttered suburban hospitals for bed space, a project he never before linked to any racial demographic. He did not elaborate on how his administration was targeting the community with virus-prevention messages.

Democratic members of Congress have called on Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar to ensure race and ethnic data is collected by health agencies across the country during the pandemic.

Detroit, which is about 80% black, has reported 5,032 confirmed cases, with 196 people dead from complications.

Coronavirus data specific to black residents was not available from the city, but Detroit and its suburbs account for about 80% of the state’s confirmed cases.

“It’s clear that what Covid-19 is doing is exacerbating the racial disparity in health in this country,” said Mayor Mike Duggan, who led the Detroit Medical Center before taking office.

White residents account for about 23% of the confirmed cases in Michigan, and 28% of the deaths, according to state health officials. The race of about 38% of the confirmed cases and 26% of the deaths in Michigan were not known.

“Part of what we’re seeing in Detroit is that there’s such a high number of individuals who have those underlying conditions, who have the diabetes and the heart disease, who may have obesity,” Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, Michigan’s chief medical executive who previously led Detroit’s health department, said this month.

The plan announced in Chicago followed a report by WBEZ Chicago highlighting the disproportionate number of black residents among those who have died of Covid-19 complications.

Lightfoot noted that unequal access to health care in Chicago’s black and brown communities has persisted for decades. Medical conditions including diabetes and heart disease also remain more prevalent among black adults in the United States.

The Rev. Marshall Hatch, pastor of a Baptist church on Chicago’s West Side, said he wanted to offer a “human face” to the maps and charts surrounding him at Monday’s news conference. In the past week, Hatch said, he lost his oldest sister, a friend of 45 years and a parishioner to complications of Covid-19.

“Poverty is not just about quality of life,” he said. “It is about literally life and death.”

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