RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – The coronavirus crisis is hitting minorities in the U.S. especially hard, according to state and national data.
The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services statistics updated Monday show that African-American people account for 38 percent of the state’s deaths due to COVID-19 and 39 percent of the hospitalizations.
Yet the U.S. Census Bureau figures show black people make up just 22 percent of the state’s population.
And nationally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that among COVID-19 patients who provide information about their race, 33 percent of those hospitalized were classified as non-Hispanic black. African Americans make up just 13 percent of the U.S. population.
By comparison, the national population is 72 percent white – but only 45 percent of people in the CDC study who were hospitalized were white.
And in North Carolina – which is 71 percent white – the percentages of those hospitalized with COVID-19 (55 percent) or dying of the disease (58 percent) were far lower than that.
U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams and Vice President Mike Pence have said they will take steps with the CDC to provide specific guidance to black communities in dealing with the pandemic. Yet there’s no single, simple reason for the disparity.
“A number of factors are playing an important role,” said Dr. Deepak Kumar, a researcher from North Carolina Central University who established a program that examines disparities in health and medical care for African Americans and other minorities.
The CDC study – which included 1,482 patients over 14 states and ran from March 1-30 – found that 89 percent of the adult patients had at least one underlying condition, with the most common being hypertension (50 percent), obesity (48 percent), chronic lung disease (35 percent) and diabetes (28 percent).
“The scientific community identified underlying health reasons that are responsible for graver outcomes from this disease – like, for examples, diabetes, heart disease, lung disease, liver and immune diseases,” Kumar said. “All these diseases are the diseases that we know disproportionally affect African Americans. We know this. So we knew that if these diseases are the underlying risk factors, African Americans, if they get it, they are going to suffer more than other populations because of these illnesses.”
And according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 28 percent of employed African Americans work in education and health services and another 10 percent work in retail, making it even more difficult to work from home.
“Some of the minority populations have demanding jobs. They can not really afford to take off their essential workers, so they’re more exposed to it as well,” Kumar said. “Access to health care is another problem. A dense population is where this virus is affecting most, and minority populations, they are living in denser areas due to affordability and due to the kind of jobs that they sometimes are exposed to.”
Kumar’s group, the Health Equity, Environment and Population Health (HOPE) program, is working with the health departments in three south central North Carolina counties that may have public health systems lacking funding or staff during the pandemic, and addressing the disparities in racial health in those counties.
Kumar partnered with Dr. William Pilkington, the former public health director and CEO of the Cabarrus Health Alliance, for the project.
Pilkington said the three counties represent a broad swath of socioeconomic levels: The state Department of Commerce’s county distress rankings have Anson County in Tier 1, meaning it is among the most distressed counties in the state.
Rowan County is in Tier 2 and Cabarrus County is in Tier 3.
“The goal, and what we hope to accomplish with the HOPE program – and it’s a lofty goal, is to turn that situation around for the first time in this country,” Pilkington told CBS 17 News. “No one’s ever done it. It’s always been something we accept and say, ‘It’s OK that we have a disproportionate share of African-Americans dying much earlier than white people in this country. We don’t seem to want to address that. What we’ve said is, ‘No, it’s not OK.
“Not only do we want to address it, we want to turn that on its head and make, hopefully, in our three counties, we can prove it in a very poor county, and a very rich county and a county in the middle,” he added. “That’s pretty much what we have in this state. So let’s take that to 100 counties and see if we can turn North Carolina … completely around.”
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