WASHINGTON – Black Americans are dying of coronavirus at much higher rates compared with other Americans in some major cities, but most federal officials and states are not keeping track or releasing racial data on coronavirus victims, raising concerns about care for the nation's most vulnerable populations.
As coronavirus cases and related deaths soar in cities with significant black populations, including New Orleans, Detroit and New York, civil rights groups, Democratic lawmakers and the White House have called on federal health officials to release racial data to ensure resources and information reach every community affected by the outbreak.
President Donald Trump and Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said during a White House briefing Tuesday that African Americans are being hit hard by the coronavirus, representing a "tremendous challenge" for the nation, according to the president.
"We want to find the reason to it," Trump said, adding that national data on race and coronavirus cases should be available this week.
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Fauci said health disparities made the outbreak worse for the African American community.
"So we are very concerned about that. It is very sad. There is nothing we can do about it right now except to give them the best possible care to avoid complications," Fauci said.
Only a few states have released the racial information, including Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, New Jersey and North Carolina. Data from these states shows blacks are dying at a disproportionately higher rate compared with whites.
“This is a critical issue for us that we're raising, and we're sounding the alarm,” said Hardie Davis, president of the African American Mayors Association and mayor of Augusta, Georgia.
In Illinois, there were 13,549 coronavirus cases Tuesday and 380 deaths, according to the state’s Department of Public Health. Of the confirmed cases, 28.4% were black, 27.1% white, 10% Hispanic, 3.3% Asian and 25.7% were unknown. Of the deaths, 42.9% were black, 36.1% white, 8.4% Hispanic, 6.8% unknown and 3.7% Asian. Roughly 15% of the state's population is black, while whites make up 77% of the state, according to the Census.
In Michigan, the numbers were also bleak: African Americans account for 14% of the state's population but 33% of COVID-19 cases and 40% of deaths.
In New York City, the coronavirus pandemic is killing Hispanics and African Americans at a disproportionate pace compared with their representation in the city’s population, according to preliminary data issued Wednesday by Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Hispanics accounted for 34% of the deaths in the city hardest hit by the crisis; they represent 29% of the population. African Americans represented 28% of the deaths, higher than their 22% representation in the city’s population, the data showed. In contrast, white New York City residents accounted for 27% of the deaths, lower than their 32% representation in the city population. Asians represented 7% of the deaths, well below their 14% share of the population.
In Louisiana, one of the hardest hit states in the country, 70% of the deaths related to coronavirus were African American and 29% were white, according to the state’s health department. As of Wednesday, there were 17,030 cases across the state and 652 deaths. African Americans make up 32% of the state’s population.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards called the disparity “disturbing.”
“Obviously, this is a big disparity, and we’re going to try to figure out what that is attributable to and what we can do about that as quickly as possible,” Edwards said at a news conference Monday.
African Americans may be vulnerable to complications from the coronavirus because many suffer from underlying health conditions, including asthma and diabetes. Advocates are also worried that minorities aren't receiving adequate information about the illness or access to testing.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it is collecting racial data provided by states. Some of that data has not been complete and some has not been submitted. The agency is waiting for more information before it compiles it. A spokesperson told USA TODAY on Tuesday that the CDC would release information about COVID-19 hospitalizations this week that includes data on race and ethnicity.
Health experts, advocates, civil rights groups and congressional lawmakers urged Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar to release national data by race.
Information about gender is reported, so why not race, said U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly, D-Ill., chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus Health Braintrust. Kelly said the first person who died from 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 Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., and Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., sent a letter to HHS asking the federal agency to collect and release racial data.
“We need to make sure we’re prepared,’’ Kelly told USA TODAY.
Lawmakers want to know who is being tested for coronavirus
Lovely Warren, mayor of Rochester, New York, said local officials need racial data to know where to channel resources.
She said the first coronavirus death last month in Monroe County, which includes Rochester, was a 57-year-old African American male. She said she knows that only because the family released the information on Facebook.
As of Tuesday, the county had 570 cases and 31 deaths. She said her city, the third largest in the state, is expected to see more deaths in April. New York hasn’t released racial data on the deceased.
“Without everyone reporting the data, you can’t see the magnitude of the problem,” said Warren, the second vice president of the African American Mayors Association.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan directed his state's Department of Health this week to provide racial breakdowns for all Maryland cases, including testing, hospitalizations and mortality rates. He noted that much of the testing is done by private doctors through private labs outside the state.
New Jersey officials released data Monday that listed race for 729 out of its 1,232 deaths. Of those, 60% were white, 24% were black, 5% Asian, and 11% other. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said the goal of adding more racial data is to ensure all residents get proper care.
"Invariably, there are folks who are left behind," he said in a news conference. "More often than not, that population that's getting left behind is overrepresented by communities of color."
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus is also pressing for the release of more racial data. Hispanics, who are more likely than other groups to not have health insurance, tend to have poor health that could make them vulnerable to the coronavirus.
U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, chairman of the caucus, said communities of color have long suffered because of health disparities, “but you can’t fix what you don’t measure.’’
Who is dying from coronavirus?
Some counties are slow to report, meaning statewide information is not always up to date, resulting in inconsistencies in information about coronavirus. Davis, the mayor of Augusta, Georgia, said Monday he was told by health officials there were 266 coronavirus cases in his area, but the state website had a lower number.
“There's a lag between the reporting that is happening, between the testing that's happening on the ground in local communities, versus what states are reporting,” he said.
In Louisiana, the Department of Health said it is reporting the racial breakdown of deaths each week, though officials may expand racial reporting to all positive cases.
The department’s top coronavirus expert, Dr. Alex Billioux, said the high number of African American deaths from COVID-19 is probably a result of Louisiana's black population suffering from a disproportionate number of underlying conditions, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity. Billioux said the state will conduct more research into the disparity and form strategies to mitigate it.
"Sadly, we know there is a significant racial health disparity in the state," Billioux said.
Communities of color have long faced disparities in the health care system, in part because of discrimination, poor health and insufficient insurance coverage. This has particularly hurt African Americans in the Deep South, where most of the nation's black population is concentrated, health experts said.
"This exposes the structural deficits that we’ve all known about, but when you put an accelerant like coronavirus in the midst where African Americans are disparately impacted," it demands solutions, said Derrick Johnson, president of the national NAACP.
In New York, De Blasio called the data disturbing and said it reflects economic inequality and unequal access to health care.
“There are clear inequalities, clear disparities in how this disease is affecting the people of our city,” de Blasio said during a news briefing Wednesday morning. “The truth is that in so many ways, the negative affects of coronavirus, the pain it’s causing, the death it’s causing, tracks with other profound health care disparities that we have seen for years and decades.”
He outlined a four-part plan to improve minority community awareness of the coronavirus and preventive measures and to boost availability of health care. The plan includes robocalls, peer-to-peer texting and direct outreach to households in the city’s minority communities.
Advocates said it’s not clear why some states have released the demographic information and others haven’t.
“What we know is that race matters and that we need this data to inform an effective response to the pandemic,” said Kristen Clarke, president of the nonprofit Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, based in Washington.
Clarke pointed to the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits federal funded entities, including health care providers, from discriminating based on race. Having the data is key to determining whether hospitals and others are complying, she said.
African Americans need to know they are at risk
Officials said the data could help make sure credible messages get to black communities, where a myth that African Americans couldn't get the coronavirus initially took root based on early testing results showing many elderly white Americans were getting sick.
In some communities, the message of social distancing hasn't hit home: People still play basketball, have card parties and host sleepovers.
The message, said Warren, the mayor of Rochester, may have to go beyond "just stay home."'
“I don’t think our community is taking it as seriously as it should, and the data will be able to help us to bring that message home a lot more,” she said.
Michael McAfee, CEO of PolicyLink, a research institute focused on racial equity, said he’s worried this may be the first wave of deaths for African Americans if more isn't done.
“Think about how we see this spreading in Louisiana. Think about the carnage it’s done in Detroit, just places that we know are predominantly black,” he said. “This is not going to be a good outcome.”
Contributing: Kevin McCoy from USA TODAY; Greg Hilburn, statehouse reporter for the USA TODAY Network-Louisiana; Jennifer Dixon and Darcie Moran of the Detroit Free Press; Lucas Gonzalez from the Salisbury Daily Times; Ashley Balcerzak, statehouse reporter with The Bergen Record; and Joseph Spector, USA TODAY Network's Albany Bureau chief.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Who is dying from coronavirus? More black people die in major cities