Why isn’t there comprehensive racial data on coronavirus cases? Many states, including Pennsylvania, aren’t keeping records on the races/ethnicities who test positive for the virus, raising concerns from Democratic lawmakers, civil rights groups, and prompting a Courier inquiry to the Allegheny County Health Department
by Rob Taylor Jr., Courier Staff Writer
Everyone knows that novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, is America’s number one enemy right now, as the virus is responsible for more than 13,000 deaths in the U.S. in the past month.
As White House Coronavirus Task Force members continue to brief the country daily on how best to take precautions against the virus, they also warned of some “hot spots” where the virus is quickly spreading and claiming lives as we speak—Chicago, New Orleans and Detroit. Include the first “epicenter,” New York City, and task force members warned that the virus can especially spread in densely populated metropolitan areas.
African Americans comprise 13.4 percent of the U.S. population. And you can find most of the African American community inside major metropolitan areas, as opposed to rural areas. Thus, as COVID-19 takes its tornadic toll, is it conceivable that Blacks could be more susceptible, at least in dense metro areas, to contracting and dying from coronavirus at a higher rate than other races, especially when underlying health conditions for African Americans are included?
The short answer, according to data available from Illinois, is yes. But Illinois is one of only a handful of states or metropolitan areas whose Department of Public Health (or corresponding agency) is documenting and publicly reporting the races/ethnicities of those who have contracted and/or died from COVID-19, the New Pittsburgh Courier has found. The lack of racial data is not sitting well with some Democratic lawmakers.
As of April 7, Illinois had 13,549 positive coronavirus cases; at least 3,853 of which were African Americans (28 percent). The state reported 380 deaths as of April 7—at least 163 of which were African Americans (43 percent). Both percentages are vastly higher than the percentage of African Americans in the state of Illinois (13.4). In fact, as of April 7, of those who wanted to identify their race, more Blacks had contracted coronavirus in Illinois (3,853) than Whites (3,671), though Whites account for 60 percent of the state’s population.
It’s important to note that COVID-19 affects all races. It does not discriminate. People of all races have died in the U.S. due to the disease. But due to the sizable Black populations of New York City, Chicago, New Orleans and Detroit, and because those cities were labeled as current trouble spots for the virus, it has sparked the question among Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and Mass. Rep. Ayanna Pressley, as to if the federal government is keeping track of racial data for coronavirus cases. Originally, coronavirus was referred to as a “White, elite” disease in some circles, while false rumors abounded in other circles that African Americans, as a whole, were immune to contracting the virus.
The Associated Press reported on March 30 that the two lawmakers sent a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, wondering why comprehensive demographic data on people who test positive for the virus does not exist. The letter was also signed by Sens. Kamala Harris (D-California) and Cory Booker (D-New Jersey), and Rep. Robin Kelly (D-Illinois). All three are African Americans.
In a phone interview conducted by the Associated Press, Rep. Pressley said the race and ethnic data are needed to “directly influence how we marshal and target resources. I think we’re flying blind because we’re playing catch-up when it comes to educating the public about who is at risk. In all things, I strive to push for equity. And that is not going to change, certainly not in the midst of a pandemic.”
The letter sent to Azar, shown to the Associated Press, read in part: “Any attempt to contain COVID-19 in the United States will have to address its potential spread in low-income communities of color, first and foremost to protect the lives of people in those communities, but also to slow the spread of the virus in the country as a whole. This lack of information will exacerbate existing health disparities and result in the loss of lives in vulnerable communities.”
The letter also urged Azar to lead the charge in ensuring that municipalities, states and private labs across the U.S. collect and report the racial and ethnic data pertaining to coronavirus cases.
North Carolina is another state that tracks the racial data on its coronavirus cases. The state is 21 percent African American, but as of April 7, Blacks accounted for 38 percent of the state’s COVID-19 cases of which the race or ethnicity is known.
Pennsylvania, like many other states, hasn’t tracked its coronavirus cases by race, or at the least, hasn’t made the data public. The New Pittsburgh Courier discussed the issue with the Pa. Department of Public Health, and received this response on April 5 from April L. Hutcheson, the Department of Health communications director: “We do have age breakdowns of patients, but do not have racial breakdowns at this time.”
The Courier on April 7 discussed the same issue with Allegheny County Communications Director Amie M. Downs pertaining to the county’s coronavirus cases. In response to the Courier’s inquiry, Downs said the county’s health department “is putting together a plan to look at racial demographics to address any inequities.”
On its website, Allegheny County breaks down its coronavirus cases by age bracket, gender and municipality. The Philadelphia health department takes it a step further, breaking the positive cases into city zip codes. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that as of Wednesday, April 1, “the available data on the race of nearly one-third of the 1,675 confirmed coronavirus patients in the city showed 46 percent were African American, 37 percent were White, 10 percent Latino, and 3 percent Asian American.”
While not as drastic a difference, the 46 percent African Americans with coronavirus is higher than the Black population of Philadelphia (42 percent), while the White percentage with coronavirus (37 percent) is lower than the actual White population of the city (41 percent).
Fast forward to Milwaukee, a city that’s 39 percent African American, and the county in which it sits, Milwaukee County. The county has a 28 percent Black population, but 33 of the 45 coronavirus-related deaths in Milwaukee County (73 percent) were African Americans.
Some of the Black Wisconsin victims? Men like Lawrence Riley, Leonard Wells and Roderick Crape. Riley was 66, Wells, 69, Crape, 54.
Some of the African Americans in Illinois to die from COVID-19 include Patricia Frieson, 61, who was the state’s first person to die from coronavirus. Days later, her sister, Wanda Bailey, 63, died from coronavirus as well. Carl Redd, 62, and Peggy Rakestraw, 72, also passed away from COVID-19.
Jazmond Dixon, a 31-year-old, healthy African American woman who worked for the American Red Cross, was the city of St. Louis’ first person to die from coronavirus on March 24.
In Detroit, Jason Hargrove was a city bus driver who witnessed a woman coughing on a bus he was driving. He vented about it via social media, saying in part, “But for you to get on a bus and stand on the bus and cough several times without covering up your mouth and you know we are in the middle of a pandemic, that lets me know that some folks don’t care, utterly don’t give a (expletive).”
Days later, Hargrove died—from coronavirus. Hargrove, an African American, was one of dozens of Black Detroiters to die from COVID-19. Detroit has seen more than 196 of its residents die from COVID-19 as of April 7, though the exact racial breakdown of those who have died is unknown. Nearly 80 percent of Detroit, however, is African American.
In New York City, coronavirus is truly persona non grata. And for Cedric Dixon, 48, all he wanted to do is protect the public. Dixon, the NYPD detective, died from coronavirus on March 28. But he’s far from the only African American in New York City and neighboring New Jersey to die from this vicious disease. NYPD Administrative Assistant Giacomina Barr-Brown, 61, died from COVID-19 on March 26. Newark University Hospital EKG Technician Kim King-Smith, 53, died from COVID-19 on March 31. She could have acquired the virus while working at the hospital, although the hospital’s CEO, Shereef Elnahal, said in media reports that there was no evidence she contracted it while on the job.
The Pittsburgh region, along with the rest of the state, has been in shutdown mode for nearly two weeks, with at least three more weeks to go (April 30). The local African American community is taking this virus seriously and practicing “social distancing” by staying home and refraining from large gatherings, according to a continuous Courier analysis of city neighborhoods and county municipalities with sizable Black populations. In the rare instances where African Americans have had to leave the house to, say, Giant Eagle, a gas station or for work, the Courier has spotted a considerable number of African Americans with masks (or some face covering), further lessening the possibility to contract the disease.
Who knows just how many people nationwide will succumb to complications from coronavirus? White House Coronavirus Task Force members have estimated it could be up to 240,000 people who could die from the virus. The virus is everywhere—in all 50 states, affecting the young, the old, the healthy, the unhealthy, and of course, people of all races. But the early returns from COVID-19 cases show that in New York City and other areas like New Orleans, the virus is pounding lower-income neighborhoods harder. An NYC Department of Health map showed many of the cases were being reported in low-income neighborhoods such as Brownsville, South Bronx, Flatbush, Jackson Heights and Elmhurst, according to the New York Post.
And in New Orleans, a city that’s 60 percent African American, there were 160 deaths in the city due to coronavirus as of April 5. And it’s only predicted to get worse in the Bayou State.
“Equal access to healthcare is a critical civil rights issue,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director for Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a national civil rights group, in a statement reported by the Associated Press. “And during this novel pandemic, the public deserves nothing less than full transparency from this administration and state public health officials.”
Rob Taylor Jr. is the managing editor of the New Pittsburgh Courier.