The first tracked death in the United States of COVID-19 occurred on Feb. 29 and within a month we are at well beyond 2,500 fatalities with numbers expected to skyrocket further.
Dr. Tony Fauci, the nation’s number one infectious disease expert, said on March 29 on CNN that it is possible to see between 100,000 and 200,000 COVID-19-related deaths by the end of the crisis. An alarming number of these deaths are disproportionately of Black people.
So is COVID-19’s viral make-up one that afflicts Blacks more seriously than it does people of other ethnicities or is the virus highlighting the health disparities Black Americans have endured throughout time? Many scientists and heath activists say it is the latter.
The deaths of Black Americans are being noted throughout the nation. In Wisconsin, as of this past Friday (March 27) of the state’s 14 COVID-19 deaths, eight of the victims were Black. That’s 57 percent of all Wisconsin deaths in a state where the Black population is just 6.7 percent. The bulk of the deaths were in concentrated in Milwaukee and ironically, just weeks prior to the outbreak, Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele introduced an ordinance to advance racial equity and improve health outcomes.
“We have a moral imperative as community leaders to address racial equity head on,” said Abele in a press release touting the proposed ordinance.
“This ordinance is not only an acknowledgement of systemic racism in Milwaukee County, it is a commitment to equity and accountability for all those who have been disparately impacted for generations,” said Milwaukee County Supervisor Marcelia Nicholson (5th Dist.) in the same release.
It’s that same type of systemic racism that is claiming Black lives in Detroit.
Michigan is being ravaged by COVID-19. As of Sunday (March 29) 132 people in the state lost lives due to the virus. Of that, “Detroit and suburban Wayne County combined account for 49 percent of all confirmed cases of coronavirus in Michigan – and 42 percent of the 132 deaths. That’s disproportionately high to Wayne County’s share of Michigan’s population, which is about 17.5 percent,” according to a Crain’s Detroit Business report. Detroit has the nation’s highest percentage of Black residents at nearly 80 percent.
Dr. Teena Chopra, professor of infectious disease at Wayne State University, said underlying health inequities are leading to more serious cases of COVID-19 among the state’s Black population.
“Detroit is uniquely disadvantaged,” said Chopra during a March 30 interview on CNN. “Obesity, diabetes, heart disease; these all are underlying conditions that make (COVID-19) so deadly. Also, by the time we see (COVID patients) in hospitals they are already seriously ill. That’s because they are socially disadvantaged.”
That disadvantage of possible medical bias is highlighted by the case of Bassey Offiong.
Offiong, a 25-year-old senior at Western Michigan University, who was set to graduate with a degree in chemical engineering, died when, despite showing multiple symptoms of COVID-19, he was denied testing according to his sister. Asari Offiong told the Detroit News that her brother was denied test multiple times by medical staff at a Kalamazoo, Mich. medical facility.
“We don’t have the data yet, but anecdotally we’re seeing a bias in who’s getting tested,” said Dr. Danielle Lee, a renowned scientist who is a leading advocate for Blacks in STEM. “What I worry about is the already existing bias in healthcare delivery that already exist for Black people, for people of color, for people with accents, for people who are poor or with disability – and please don’t be a combination of two or more – well, we already know that without a pandemic the quality of care is already low and these individuals have less ability to get doctors to listen to them … emergencies like this exacerbate the existing disparities.”
That could spell disaster for Blacks in New Orleans.
Per capita, New Orleans has the largest number of COVID-19 cases. As of March 30 New Orleans had just under 1,500 positive COVID-19 cases. To juxtapose the number, on the same date there were 576 positive cases in the entire state of Minnesota. Seventy-eight of the 1,500 cases in New Orleans have resulted in death.
A Fox 8 (New Orleans) report found that, “according to the state health department, a number of people in Louisiana who have died from COVID-19 had underlying health conditions. Forty-one percent had diabetes, 31 percent had chronic kidney disease and 28 percent were obese.”
“Because of the demographics of our unhealthy population and in New Orleans, in particular, we do have a large number of patients who have these conditions and that is what puts the patients in a higher risk category even if they are of a younger age,” Dr. James Diaz with LSU Health School of Public Health told Fox 8. “You don’t necessarily have to be older than 65 for example, you could be younger and have one of these coexisting medical conditions.”
Minnesota Sen. Jeff Hayden (DFL-Minneapolis) said the state is in a unique position to not see the same type disparities, but only if state officials act.
“It’s a ticking timebomb,” said Hayden. “We’ve got to be using our community resources … our pastors, our community newspapers and such … to communicate to our people the seriousness of this disease. We’re trying to make sure we’re ahead of the curve to keep our population safe.”