RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Black people in North Carolina have accounted for a shrinking share of the total number of COVID-19 cases over the past few months, a CBS17.com data analysis found.
But while on the surface that seems like a positive development for a community hit disproportionately hard by the pandemic, experts say there are still plenty of reasons for concern.
“I hope it’s real,” said Dr. Crystal Cené of the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. “But I’m a little skeptical.”
Black people — who account for 22 percent of the state’s population — had 20 percent of the more than 650,000 total cases of COVID-19, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services on Thursday.
On Sept. 14, that figure was 24 percent.
Put another way, of the more than 465,000 new cases that have been logged since the middle of September, less than 14 percent of them involved Black people — well below the community’s proportion of the population.
DHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen pointed to the drop in those numbers as evidence of progress earlier this week, saying it has improved since the summer.
But while the lower share of the total could reflect improvement among the Black community, it also could illustrate just how rampant the virus has gotten among the state’s entire population.
“I don’t think things are getting better because as you see, the overall numbers keep rising, so what is happening is, as it is becoming more prevalent in every community, in every group, the numbers are slightly moving towards what our demographic is,” said Dr. Deepak Kumar of North Carolina Central University’s ACCORD Center, which studies disparities in underserved communities.
“I think that’s what’s happening, and we are not out of the woods yet,” he added.
Two other significant measures remain disproportionately high among Black people.
Of the more than 24,000 confirmed COVID patients admitted to hospitals since Oct. 1, nearly 26 percent are Black.
And 1.8 percent of Black people who have had COVID-19 have died from it — the highest mortality rate among any of the racial groups in the DHHS breakdown.
“I would not pinpoint to any one specific thing as yet,” Kumar said. “I would be very happy if the numbers started going down overall, and then we start looking at these numbers and, ‘OK, let’s see what is happening.’ If the numbers are going up, we are still in red.”
Cené says it’s possible the drop in cases could reflect a reduction in tests, though there isn’t any available data to support the assertion. While the state has averaged more than 55,000 tests processed per day in January, DHHS does not issue a demographic breakdown of those who are being tested.
“That was the main thing that I thought about was, ‘Wait a minute, is this just because there’s been less testing among the group, among Blacks over that corresponding time period?’” Cené said. “But I can’t verify that that is actually the case, because given that we haven’t really seen the same trend in hospitalizations or deaths, it would make me think that it’s a testing issue.”
Black people have been disproportionately affected by COVID for several reasons, Cené said, including the propensity for having other underlying health conditions, a higher likelihood of holding jobs considered essential with little opportunity for working remotely or comparatively less access to health care.
“If it was everything going down, then I might think that it’s a real finding and that is reason to celebrate,” Cené said. “But I think without knowing what the trend was in testing, it’s hard to tell what to make of that.”
CBS 17’s Joedy McCreary has been tracking COVID-19 figures since March 2020, compiling data from federal, state, and local sources to deliver a clear snapshot of what the coronavirus situation looks like now and what it could look like in the future.