CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Is COVID-19 disproportionately impacting the black community?
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As cases grow, so does an apparent gap between the percentage of cases affecting African Americans and how much of the population they make up.
Vanessa Northington Gamble is a medical doctor and professor of medical history at the George Washington University. She's been on the national news circuit urging the federal government and states to track racial and ethnic data on COVID-19 cases. She says that data shows a disproportionate number of cases impacting communities of color.
Last week, Mecklenburg County was the only health agency in the state releasing racial make-up data for COVID-19 cases. Since then, the state's Department of Health and Human Services has added it to the demographic data they are collecting and releasing on the state's coronavirus cases. “North Carolina is at the forefront of this,” Gamble said. “North Carolina, Michigan, Illinois are places where they are releasing the racial data.”
Gamble has written about the 1918 influenza epidemic's impact on African-Americans. “We find that there has been a historic lack of healthcare facilities for African Americans. We also know now more so than we did in 1918 how socioeconomic factors, the so-called social deterrents of health, affect your health, where you live, where you work.”
She says public health agencies and private labs releasing COVID-19 data only makes them more nimble “...in order to come up with a response to COVID19,” she said.
So far, African Americans account for 38 per cent of the COVID-19 cases in North Carolina and 31 percent of the state's COVID-19 deaths. But 2019 census data showed they only make up 22 percent of the state's population.
In Mecklenburg County, which has the state's highest case count, the numbers are raising even more eyebrows. Their latest data dashboard shows 43 percent of African-Americans have been infected with COVID-19, but only account for 32 percent of the population. “When we look at any epidemic, any pandemic we have to look at medical factors, we have to look at public health factors and at the same time, we also have to look at broader historical factors such as racism, historic segregation,” Gamble said.
She sees something similar emerging with COVID-19. “There was a rumor out there that black people did not get COVID-19 and so with these data we can say, yes, we are disproportionately affected.”
Gamble says minorities are not just affected through long-standing disparities in healthcare, but also higher rates of diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure. “We see a lot of asthma in African-American communities, so these pre-existing conditions are a factor.”
Unlike the CDC, which is currently tracking but not releasing racial and ethnic data on COVID-19 cases, Gamble is highlighting states that are focusing on all factors. “They are developing plans to address the needs of the community and I think it's very hard to do that if you don't have the information.”
Mecklenburg County says the racial and ethnic differences in their data are neither related to the spread of COVID-19 nor any perceived difference in the susceptibility of certain groups to being infected. They rather believe it has to do with underlying racial and ethnic disparities in rates of chronic conditions, such as diabetes.
Nevertheless, several Democrats in Congress sent a letter to the Health and Human Services secretary urging the HHS to work better with states, localities, and private labs on how they're collecting COVID-19 data.