KEY POINTS

  • In Michigan, blacks represent 12% of the population, but account for 40% of  virus deaths
  • Of 11,000 Michigan residents who have tested positive for the virus, 35% were black
  • About 25% of confirmed deaths and infections in Michigan were in Detroit

 

 

Preliminary demographic data – where available -- and early anecdotal evidence suggest that poor African-Americans are contracting and dying from the coronavirus in disproportionate rates.

In the state of Michigan, while blacks represent only 12% of the total population, they account for at least 40% of its coronavirus-related deaths, said the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

Michigan has reported a total of 417 coronavirus deaths as of Thursday.

Moreover, of the nearly 11,000 state residents who have tested positive for the virus, 35% were black.

African Americans also tend to suffer from underlying health conditions – including diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease -- which make them more susceptible to contracting the virus.

The deaths from the virus also appear to be more prevalent among the poor and those who cannot easily access health care.

About 25% of confirmed deaths and infections in Michigan were in Detroit, a city that is 80% black. At least 97 people in Detroit have died from the illness so far.

Suburban communities with significant black populations – including Eastpointe, Ecorse, Highland Park, Oak Park, Redford Township, River Rouge, Roseville, Southfield, and Warren – have also reported heavy rates of infection.

“There is no question that the COVID-19 outbreak is having a more significant effect on marginalized and poorer communities, particularly communities of color," said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, Michigan's chief medical executive. "While COVID-19 can infect anyone regardless of race or class, African Americans have historically been more likely to have higher rates of chronic medical conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer in the United States. We know that people with these underlying medical conditions are more likely to become severely ill from COVID-19."

Detroit has a poverty rate of 35% which means that many of its residents live in close proximity to one another and work in low-income service vocations – jobs that require close contact with the public and cannot be done remotely. In addition, low earners typically depend upon public transportation – another place where ‘social distancing’ is difficult.

“The numbers don’t lie,” said state Rep. Tyrone Carter, D-Detroit. “It reinforces what I am seeing in the city of Detroit.”

Carter himself is black and recovering from COVID-19.

“This is a cruel disease and it picks on the most vulnerable people," said Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, former director of the Detroit Health Department.

Wayne County, which includes Detroit and has the highest percentage of black residents in the state, has 47% of Michigan's total number of COVID-19 cases. But Wayne County only represents 17% of the state’s population.

In Detroit, coronavirus has already killed community leader Marlowe Stoudamire, Detroit Police Capt. Jonathan Parnell and Wayne County Sheriff’s Department Cmdr. Donafay Collins. Detroit Police Chief James Craig, Highland Park Police Chief Hilton Napoleon and state Rep. Tyrone Carter all have contracted the virus. (All the aforementioned people are black).

“All the people I’ve known so far -- 80 percent that I know that have passed away [from coronavirus] -- have been black males,” Carter said.

In Washtenaw County, a predominantly suburban region west of Detroit where blacks account for only 11% of the population nearly half (48%) of infected patients are black.

“We know viruses do not discriminate based on location, race, ethnicity or national origin,” said Jimena Loveluck, health officer at the Washtenaw County Health Department. “However, viruses like COVID-19 can highlight health disparities that are deeply rooted in our society. There is no question that the COVID-19 outbreak is having a more significant impact on marginalized and poorer communities, particularly communities of color.”

However, there is some confusion over whether the existence of underlying health conditions lead to higher rates of viral infection or higher rates of fatality (or both).

"There is no reason to believe that the [underlying] health conditions affect the infection rate," said Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan on Wednesday. "There's no question Detroiters suffer from kidney disease, from heart disease, from asthma at rates typically double that of the surrounding communities. That doesn't affect the infection rate. [But] it may affect the fatality rate."

Stephen Hawes, an epidemiology professor at the University of Washington, suggested that another reason for high rates of infection relates to the fact that “African Americans and other under-served groups have less access to testing and/or present with more severe disease, again putting them at higher risk for death due to COVID."

Many more Michiganders will likely become infected and die in the coming months.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer warned the "apex" of the virus in the state may not arrive until the end of April or early May.

"At this juncture, we think we're probably a good month out from the apex of COVID-19," Whitmer said Thursday. "This disease is spreading very fast here in Michigan."

Whitmer has already closed schools, prohibited large public gatherings and issued a stay-at-home order.

Dr. Vikas Parekh, associate chief clinical officer for the University of Michigan’s adult hospitals, said the virus is spreading across the state in an “urban epicenter model” of infection.

“It spreads out of a dense urban environment and then radiates from there. And so it started in the Detroit metro area as a dense urban environment, radiating out very similar to what we see in New York and other areas,” he said.

More than 600 miles to the south in Charlotte, N.C., coronavirus is also disproportionately impacting black residents.

Health officials in Mecklenburg County said black residents represented about 44% of the more than 300 confirmed COVID-19 cases, while accounting for 33% of the county’s population.

George Dunlap, the chairman of the Mecklenburg County commissioners, suggested, however, that the data may show that black residents are disproportionately infected because they are now seeking testing more often.

Nonetheless, Charlotte City Council member Braxton Winston, said local leaders need to “wrap our proverbial arms around our most high-risk communities.”

“That is going to be so important in flattening the overall curve. Equity should really inform us of segments of our population that could be most disproportionately affected by this,” Winston said.

U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly (D-Ill.), chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus Health Braintrust, said minority communities (including Latinos) tend to bear the brunt of health crises since they have less income than whites and lower access to health care.

“We’re very concerned because, as we like to say, when the majority gets a cold, we get the flu or we get pneumonia,’’ said Kelly.

Charles M. Blow, a columnist for The New York Times, described the virus as a “racial time bomb” that will especially devastate poor black communities, particularly in the south, where many blacks live.

“In addition, many Southern states refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, and there is a rural hospital crisis in this country,” Blow wrote. “But that crisis is compounded in the South, where… rural areas ‘have higher poverty rates, higher mortality rates, and lower life expectancies than other rural regions of the country.’”

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