The coronavirus entered Milwaukee from a white, affluent suburb. Then it took root in the city’s black community and erupted.
As public health officials watched cases rise in March, too many in the community shrugged off warnings. Rumors and conspiracy theories proliferated on social media, pushing the bogus idea that black people are somehow immune to the disease. And much of the initial focus was on international travel, so those who knew no one returning from Asia or Europe were quick to dismiss the risk.
Then, when the shelter-in-place order came, there was a natural pushback among those who recalled other painful government restrictions — including segregation and mass incarceration — on where black people could walk and gather.
“We’re like, ‘We have to wake people up,’” said Milwaukee Health Commissioner Jeanette Kowalik.
As the disease spread at a higher rate in the black community, it made an even deeper cut. Environmental, economic and political factors have compounded for generations, putting black people at higher risk of chronic conditions that leave lungs weak and immune systems vulnerable: asthma, heart disease, hypertension and diabetes. In Milwaukee, simply being black means your life expectancy is 14 years shorter, on average, than someone white.
As of Friday morning, African Americans made up almost half of Milwaukee County’s 945 cases and 81% of its 27 deaths in a county whose population is 26% black. Milwaukee is one of the few places in the United States that is tracking the racial breakdown of people who have been infected by the novel coronavirus, offering a glimpse at the disproportionate destruction it is inflicting on black communities nationwide.
In Michigan, where the state’s population is 14% black, African Americans made up 35% of cases and 40% of deaths as of Friday morning. Detroit, where a majority of residents are black, has emerged as a hot spot with a high death toll. As has New Orleans. Louisiana has not published case breakdowns by race, but 40% of the state’s deaths have happened in Orleans Parish, where the majority of residents are black.
“It will be unimaginable pretty soon,” said Dr. Celia J. Maxwell, an infectious disease physician and associate dean at Howard University College of Medicine, a school and hospital in Washington dedicated to the education and care of the black community. “And anything that comes around is going to be worse in our patients. Period. Many of our patients have so many problems, but this is kind of like the nail in the coffin.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracks virulent outbreaks and typically releases detailed data that includes information about the age, race and location of the people affected. For the coronavirus pandemic, the CDC has released location and age data, but it has been silent on race. The CDC did not respond to ProPublica’s request for race data related to the coronavirus or answer questions about whether they were collecting it at all.
Experts say that the nation’s unwillingness to publicly track the virus by race could obscure a crucial underlying reality: It’s quite likely that a disproportionate number of those who die of coronavirus will be black.
The reasons for this are the same reasons that African Americans have disproportionately high rates of maternal death, low levels of access to medical care and higher rates of asthma, said Dr. Camara Jones, a family physician, epidemiologist and visiting fellow at Harvard University.
“COVID is just unmasking the deep disinvestment in our communities, the historical injustices and the impact of residential segregation,” said Jones, who spent 13 years at the CDC, focused on identifying, measuring and addressing racial bias within the medical system. “This is the time to name racism as the cause of all of those things. The overrepresentation of people of color in poverty and white people in wealth is not just a happenstance. … It’s because we’re not valued.”
Five congressional Democrats wrote to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, whose department encompasses the CDC, last week demanding the federal government collect and release the breakdown of coronavirus cases by race and ethnicity.
Without demographic data, the members of Congress wrote, health officials and lawmakers won’t be able to address inequities in health outcomes and testing that may emerge: “We urge you not to delay collecting this vital information, and to take any additional necessary steps to ensure that all Americans have the access they need to COVID-19 testing and treatment.”
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