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A majority of coronavirus deaths in the US were in disproportionately black counties

Preliminary data gives more insight into nationwide disparities

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Half of all COVID-19 cases and nearly 60 percent of deaths due to the disease in the US occurred in counties that are disproportionately black, according to newly released data that is still being reviewed by scientists. The numbers of COVID-19 diagnoses and deaths are also higher in counties with a bigger proportion of black residents, the new analysis shows.

Only 22 percent of counties in the United States are disproportionately black, but the people within them have endured the majority of deaths in the country. These findings are the most comprehensive evidence we have yet showing how the novel coronavirus is taking a heavier toll on African Americans since national demographic data on race has so far been incomplete. An accurate picture of who is hardest hit is needed so that these disparities don’t play out again when it comes to who can get a vaccine and treatments as these become available, researchers say.

“Unfortunately, we might see history repeat itself when a vaccine becomes available,” Gregorio Millett, the study’s lead investigator, said in a press call. “That’s why it’s important to have studies like this and other studies that come out to show where COVID-19 diagnoses and deaths are concentrated to make sure that these marginalized populations are among the first to have access.”

This study was released today on the website of amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research to allow other scientists to comment on it. The results may change before it is finalized and published. The foundation worked in collaboration with Emory University, Johns Hopkins, O’Neill Institute, Georgetown University, and the University of Mississippi Medical Center. They analyzed data on the pandemic collected on or before April 13th.

The racial breakdown of COVID-19 cases has trickled out from states and cities since March. More than 80 percent of coronavirus patients hospitalized in Georgia were black, according to a recent sample taken by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of 305 patients. That’s despite black residents making up less than one-third of the population. But the CDC’s national data is still missing the races of more than 55 percent of COVID-19 cases nationwide.

Lawmakers have urged the Department of Health and Human Services to collect racial and ethnic demographics. “Lack of information will exacerbate existing health disparities and result in the loss of lives in vulnerable communities,” they wrote in a March 27th letter to the agency. “Existing racial disparities and inequities in health outcomes and health care access may mean that the nation’s response to preventing and mitigating its harms will not be felt equally in every community.”

More than 90 percent of the disproportionately black counties studied are in the South. But the researchers found that cases and deaths were higher in African American communities, regardless of whether the area was more rural or more urban.

In New York City, the epicenter of the pandemic, there are stark differences in the rates of hospitalizations and deaths by county, according to a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The Bronx has the highest proportion of racial and ethnic minorities and higher death and hospitalization rates than New York City’s other boroughs, which each have their own counties. Manhattan is predominately white, and it has the lowest rates for deaths and hospitalizations.

The new national study also highlighted that rates of being uninsured, living in crowded households, and being exposed to more air pollution were also higher in counties that were disproportionately black — all factors associated with making it harder for these communities to stay healthy. These counties were also less likely to social distance compared to other counties, based on location data from cellphones. The study also noted that African Americans are more likely to be essential workers who aren’t able to work from home, despite shelter-in-place orders.

While the data is still emerging, it’s not necessarily surprising to public health experts who have worked to end racial disparities in a broad range of health outcomes that are a result of long-standing economic and social barriers. “It’s the social conditions that we have created,” says, David Williams, a professor of public health at Harvard, told The Verge in April. “I hope this is a wake up call for America.”