From the onset of COVID-19, troubling racial inequities emerged as city and state health departments logged a deadlier impact on communities of color. While the rate of new case numbers are decreasing locally, the deaths are still mostly African Americans.
“One of three things happen when a person contracts COVID-19,” said Dr. Bruce Randolph, medical director of Shelby County Health Department. “They are stricken with prolonged illness, they get better in two weeks, or they die. Unfortunately, those who die are majority African American – right at 60 percent.”
For context, Randolph notes that Shelby County is 54 percent African American.
“So the death of African Americans with coronavirus is six points over the African-American population. We want to see the number of deaths decrease, period, but that percentage is only a few points off.”
People are being fairly compliant with the mask mandate, and coronavirus spread numbers were expected to decrease, Randolph said. Still, Shelby County’s death toll among African Americans follows the national trend of cities and states with large concentrations of African Americans.
According to The Commonwealth Fund, other cities and counties with a high African-American population also log a disproportionate number of deaths. Chicago, for instance, has an African-American population of 30 percent. The city’s COVID-19 deaths of African Americans peaked at 68 percent.
The study also looked at 681 American counties with a high concentration of African Americans. Those communities – by the end of April – had 422,184 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 27,354 deaths, compared to 378,667 cases and 16,203 deaths in counties with a low concentration of African Americans.
The 681 “predominantly black” counties accounted for only about a third of the U.S. population, but 53 percent of COVID-19 cases, and 63 percent of the deaths nationally.
“Disparity in terms of outcome are not so much genetic or biological,” said Randolph, “but social, economic and political disparities for years are the cause.”
Poor people in every health crisis and epidemic have always had higher death rates, according to Randolph.
“For example, a high percentage of African Americans and Hispanics are placed in high-risk jobs as essential workers in factories and similar work situations. …Most do not have the luxury of working from home.”
And in poor households, if someone contracts the virus, it is difficult to isolate, said Randolph.
“If you’ve got a three-bedroom home and one bathroom, with six or seven people living in the home, it is more difficult to social distance or isolate from the rest of the family.”
Dr. Kimberly Brown, an ER physician at Baptist Hospital DeSoto in Southaven, concurs with Randolph about the ongoing disparate impact of the coronavirus, even as cases have been less dire and fewer have needed hospitalization.
“I am full-time at DeSoto, but I also am sent to other smaller hospitals in the Baptist system,” Brown said. “Those who are still dying from COVID-19 have chronic conditions, such as kidney disease, COPD, or other serious issues. They are Black, and it is because of reasons we all acknowledge: systemic racism in healthcare, limits on Medicaid, a general lack of access to care. …
“Older people who look like me are dying,” said Brown. “But younger people have died in their 20s, 30s and 40s – asthma, uncontrolled high blood pressure, and some who have been smoking since age 11.”
As does Randolph, Brown sees Hispanics also disproportionately affected as they live in households of several generations, with some reluctant to seek medical help because of fear about their legal status.
There were 26,903 reported COVID-19 cases reported in Shelby County as of Thursday (Aug 27). Data shows that some 2,365 cases have been among children younger than 18.
Thursday’s data showed 247 new cases reported over the previous 24 hours, with 370 total deaths.
Total coronavirus cases recorded in Shelby County was listed at 249,500.
The positivity rate continues to decline and is now 10.8 percent. Officials would like to see the positivity rate below 10 percent, but are optimistic as positivity rate soared over 14 percent at the beginning of August.