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Officials say African-Americans disproportionately affected by COVID-19 because of structural racism

Posted at 5:04 PM, May 29, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-29 18:51:13-04

PARMA, Ohio — New data from the Cuyahoga County Board of Health shows COVID-19 is continuing to hit the African-American community hard with higher rates of hospitalizations and ICU admissions from the virus. Officials say those health disparities can’t be addressed without first acknowledging the racism African-Americans face.

“It is traumatizing to be living through a global pandemic and living through the viciousness of racism at the same time,” said Romona Brazile, the Deputy Director of Prevention and Wellness with the Cuyahoga County Board of Health, quoting a tweet from Bernice King, the daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Of the county’s 2,493 cases, 40.1% are African-American, with white patients making up 46.7% of cases. But according to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 30.5% of Cuyahoga County’s population is African-American, while about 63.6% is white. Further data from the county shows an even grimmer picture, with African-Americans making up 45% of patients hospitalized with the virus and 48% admitted to the ICU.

“At a time of COVID-19, people of color are less likely to be able to work remotely, and have less access to paid sick time. What this leads to is a constant fight - constantly fighting for yourself, for your family, for your community,” Brazile said.

Brazile says the fight against structural racism starts as early on as childhood for some African-Americans and the stress can lead to mental and physiological impacts.

“Racism is a contributing factor to chronic stress and chronic stress contributes to the development of chronic disease. Chronic diseases contribute to sicker and shorter lives,” Brazile said. “While we are not able to speak in generalizations yet about our COVID-19 data, we are seeing higher rates of hospitalizations and ICU admissions in African-Americans. We know that people with preexisting conditions like heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes are at more risk of illness from COVID-19.”

Brazile says the answer to addressing these issues is to make sure everyone has access to things like quality education, fresh and affordable food, and health care no matter their race, gender, sexual orientation, income, or where they live.

“Maybe it's too uncomfortable to hear, and maybe it's too divisive, and maybe it's too political, but ultimately public health's responsibility is to work to improve the population’s health, and we cannot do that when we ignore root causes of poor health,” Brazile said.

Health Commissioner Terry Allan says officials have recently been able to provide more testing for African-Americans and other vulnerable communities through the partnership between MetroHealth and the county. Earlier this month, Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish announced the county pledged $5 million to the Cuyahoga County Board of Health for 30,000 COVID-19 tests.

Allan says the board of health has “hit the ground running” since then to provide a range of testing in different environments where they are able to reach vulnerable people, including people of color. He says they’re working to expand that outreach in the weeks ahead.

“We’re trying to focus on trying to schedule out over a course of two weeks in advance, a range of settings that will include reaching people of color, and other vulnerable populations in a variety of these settings that we've described,” Allan said.

Jade Jarvis is a reporter at News 5 Cleveland. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.