African Americans are dying from COVID-19 at disproportionately high rates

Ohio's data on race and ethnicity is incomplete
Posted at 8:55 PM, Apr 08, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-10 11:12:14-04

Ohio doesn't have complete data on the race or ethnicity of people who are hospitalized with or die from COVID-19.

Dr. Amy Acton said Monday that the state has some data on race and ethnicity, but it's incomplete because many times, that data is collected upon intake to the hospital, and some people are opting out of filling out the information. She acknowledged that there are "huge disparities in health outcomes" in the U.S.

Data from other parts of the country shows African Americans are dying from COVID-19 at disproportionately high rates. In Milwaukee County, data showed nearly three-quarters of COVID-19 deaths were African American patients, while just 27% of the county's residents are black.

Dr. Dee Banks is an infectious disease physician in the Youngstown area with Northeast Ohio Infectious Disease Associates, a group of eight physicians and four nurse practitioners that covers Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana Counties.

After finding out about Milwaukee County's data, she started wondering why Ohio didn't have complete data on race or ethnicity of COVID-19 patients. She said most of the focus has been on clinical data, or on demographic groups such as age and gender.

"We’ve just been trying to take care of patients and keeping people alive, whether they’re men or women or African American or whatever," Banks said.

Banks said that from what can be gleaned with the available information, people who seem to be more affected "are those individuals who have underlying diseases of asthma, chronic obstructive lung disease, hypertension, diabetes, obesity. What population has had traditionally those health care disparities? African Americans primarily, historically, and Latinos. So it makes for a perfect storm."

She echoed Dr. Anthony Fauci in saying that "this is shining a bright light on an unacceptable situation."

Banks said these disparities in the African American and Latino communities are nothing new, but she hoped it would spur a focus on improving health and outcomes.

"I think better late than never," Banks said. "And maybe some lives will be saved, if one life can be saved because we know this information."

Banks said she hopes that when it is time for drug trials and vaccine trials, African Americans and Latinos will be included to make sure there's diversity and to find out how everyone is affected.

Even without complete race and ethnicity data available, the Northeast Ohio Black Health Coalition said it's clear there's a divide in who's dying from COVID-19.

Yvonka Hall, executive director of the NEOBHC, said that's in part due to underlying health conditions in the African American community.

"Hypertension rates, we have diabetes, we have different cancers, we have kidney disease," Hall said. "So we have all of these things that happen to be going on in a time when, if your body has a weakened immune system, it makes you more susceptible to the coronavirus."

She said in addition to a health deficit, there's also an income disparity and other inequities that "make this even more pronounced."

"What happens to the least of us? What happens to our children? What happens to our most vulnerable populations," Hall said. "So our seniors, our children, people who aren’t able to get the things they need in order for them to be able to function day in and day out in this new world of [coronavirus]."

Her organization is on the ground in neighborhoods to deliver food and medicine to people who would be putting their health or their family's health at risk by leaving home to get those items.

Hall said more complete data on race and ethnicity could be used for good, helping to get services into specific neighborhoods that are affected.

"We can look at data and crunch numbers all day and say, 'Black people are dying,'" Hall said. "We know that’s happening and we know that we have these disparities but what do we do to make sure that the hardest-hit populations aren’t punched continually?"