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How Is The Coronavirus Affecting Black Americans?


As we fight COVID-19, we are learning more about it. One thing that's of particular concern - data is starting to emerge from a few cities and states that suggest the death rate for black Americans is higher than for other groups. Dr. Deborah Birx talked about this last night at the White House Coronavirus Task Force briefing.


DEBORAH BIRX: We don't want to give the impression that the African American community is more susceptible to the virus. We don't have any data that suggests that. What our data suggest is they are more susceptible to more difficult and severe disease and poorer outcomes.

KING: NPR science correspondent Nell Greenfieldboyce has been looking into what's going on. Good morning, Nell.


KING: Nell, what do we know about how this virus is affecting black Americans and black communities?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: So we don't have all the data we'd like to have. At the national level, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hasn't been giving breakdowns by race for who test positive or is hospitalized or who dies. In New York City where there's a lot of infections, officials have promised to release data on race within days. But there are some places that have given out some information that's concerning. So for example in Louisiana, there have been more than 500 deaths so far and the majority of them have been African Americans. The governor of Louisiana has said that 70% of the people who died are black, while only 32% of the state's population is black. And then in Michigan, 33% of the cases are African American and 40% of the deaths. And that's in a state where blacks make up only 14% of the population. Now, the numbers we're seeing could reflect a kind of rural-urban divide in where the cases are. But in Chicago, about 68% of the city's deaths have been African Americans, while only about 30% of the city's population is black.

KING: OK, so the numbers that we do have are troubling numbers. Why would one racial group be more affected by this virus than another?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The members of the Coronavirus Task Force say it probably comes down to medical conditions that disproportionately affect African Americans. We know that there are conditions that lead to bad outcomes when someone gets infected with coronavirus. Here's how Anthony Fauci put it last night.


ANTHONY FAUCI: When they do get infected, their underlying medical conditions - the diabetes, the hypertension, the asthma - those are the kind of things that wind them up in the ICU and ultimately give them a higher death rate.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: We know that there are unfair differences related to health in this country. People of color are less likely to have access to quality health care when they get sick. They're less likely to get routine preventive care. And, you know, there's a lot of social and economic things that go into that. But Dr. Fauci said this reminded him a bit of HIV, which hit the gay community. And just like HIV brought attention to discrimination against gay people, he said coronavirus is shining a light on the serious inequality in health right now for African Americans.

KING: OK, so now that that light is being shown, did the task force say last night that the federal government is going to do anything about this?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, one thing they promised was better information on this. President Trump said they'd probably have statistics in the next few days. They're going to be looking at Medicare data to see if coronavirus infections were related to race and preexisting conditions. But Dr. Fauci said, you know, really, these underlying disparities need to be fixed.


FAUCI: So when all this is over and, as we said, it will end, we will get over coronavirus, but there will still be health disparities, which we really do need to address in the African American community.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: So I think in the coming week, we're going to learn more about what's going on in terms of data and race for this virus. But the roots of these health disparities are deep, and they're going to take a while to fix.

KING: Science correspondent Nell Greenfieldboyce. Thanks, Nell.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.