Black individuals are nearly three times as likely to contract COVID-19 and twice as likely to die from the virus, compared with white individuals, according to a new report by the National Urban League.
Researchers have struggled to measure with precision the race gaps in COVID-19 because much of the early data reported by hospitals did not include information about patients’ race — as of early August, Pennsylvania has reported race data for about half of its cases.
In an introduction to the report, Urban League CEO Marc H. Morial called racism “the pandemic within the pandemic.”
“The American people are seeing — many for the first time — the stark and deadly results of racism on an enormous scale,” Morial wrote, referring to the intersection of the pandemic and widespread demonstrations against police brutality after the death of George Floyd.
Using data from Johns Hopkins University, the report found that:
The study did not include rates for Asian individuals.
Much of the report’s national findings are in line with how the pandemic has played out in Philadelphia, where Black individuals are more than twice as likely as white individuals to contract the virus, according to data from the Philadelphia Department of Public Health.
Black Philadelphians die of the virus at a rate of 12.9 per 10,000 residents, compared with a rate of 8.7 per 10,000 residents. Race data were available for 93% of the city’s coronavirus deaths.
“In Philadelphia, given we have the highest poverty rate in the top 10 largest cities, we’re particularly at the crosshairs of this crisis,” said Eve Higginbotham, a doctor and the vice dean of Penn Medicine’s Office of Inclusion and Diversity.
Infection rates may be higher among Black and Latino individuals because they are more likely to live in crowded households and to hold essential-worker jobs that make social distancing guidelines difficult or impossible. About 30% of white individuals have been able to work from home, compared with about 20% of Black workers and 16% of Latino workers, according to the National Urban League report.
Black workers are overrepresented in nine of the 10 lowest-wage jobs considered high-contact, essential services, such as psychiatric aides, orderlies, and nursing assistants, according to an April report by the management consulting firm McKinsey & Co.
When they do become infected, Black and Latino patients may experience more severe cases requiring hospitalization because they have higher rates of underlying health conditions and are more likely to be uninsured, which can lead people to delay seeking care until they are sicker, according to the report.
The report’s authors cautioned that, without action, racial gaps in health care could deepen, and urged public health agencies to use new findings about the pandemic’s effects on communities of color to bring about change.
“The silver lining during these dark times is that this pandemic has revealed our shared vulnerability and our interconnectedness,” Lisa A. Cooper, a professor of medicine and health equity at Johns Hopkins University and an author of the report, said in a statement. “Many people are beginning to see that when others don’t have the opportunity to be healthy, it puts all of us at risk.”
Higginbotham said the increasingly evident race disparities in coronavirus are “a call to action.”
“There’s an urgency for solutions and there’s an opportunity for us to examine ways we can make our health system more accessible,” she said.
Higginbotham said she would like to see health systems expand their community health worker programs, which send medical professionals and social workers into high-risk neighborhoods to meet with patients in their own homes.
At the same time, health systems — which are also among the Philadelphia-area’s largest employers -- must also look internally for ways to protect the hundreds of Philadelphia-area residents who fill essential-worker jobs, as people of color are disproportionately represented in these roles.