A new, detailed look at the coronavirus epidemic in Georgia served to bolster fears that reopening the state, a move models predict could cost thousands of lives, may be especially dangerous for the region’s black community.
Of 305 hospitalized adults with the virus—primarily in metropolitan Atlanta—who were analyzed, a whopping 83 percent of patients were black, according to the new findings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released Wednesday in the agency’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
As ProPublica reported earlier this month, several factors—environmental, economic, and political—have put black people at higher risk of chronic conditions like asthma, heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes, that weaken the lungs and make immune systems vulnerable to COVID-19. When the pandemic first began to spread across the country, early data from multiple communities showed black people had contracted and died from the virus at alarming rates.
But the admittedly small report from the CDC seemed to augment those early findings at a key moment. (“Data collection for this assessment was limited by the intention to conduct the investigation quickly,” the report itself concedes.)
“This report continues to emphasize the disturbing disparities we have in health-care in the United States,” said Dr. Mark Rupp, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases in the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. “This pandemic only serves to point out those disparities.”
Despite reporting that had previously detailed the overrepresentation of black coronavirus patients among those who have been hospitalized, the “proportion of hospitalized patients who were black” in Wednesday’s report was “higher than expected,” the report’s authors concluded.
Patient data analyzed in the report was selected “sequentially” from lists provided in real time by hospitals from a total of 698 patients over the age of 18 years who were hospitalized with laboratory-confirmed cases of the virus between March 1 and March 30. That means, the authors wrote, that “these patients do not necessarily represent all hospitalized patients with COVID-19 at those hospitals, or within Georgia.” The report was produced by the CDC, the Georgia Department of Public Health, and eight hospitals—six community hospitals, one university hospital, and one public hospital—in the state, one of which was outside of metropolitan Atlanta.
As of Tuesday, one million people in the U.S. had been infected and more than 55,000 had been killed. These reports from the CDC are intended to analyze data by demographics and underlying medical conditions to help tailor prevention strategies and “community specific intervention messages,” according to the six-page document.
The report noted that public health efforts for outbreak prevention should “prioritize communities and racial groups most affected by severe COVID-19”—in this case, black residents—and that current programs need to increase “awareness of the risk for serious illness among adults, regardless of underlying medical conditions or age.”
Rupp noted that, as multiple models show, a resurgence of cases in Georgia is likely to follow loosened restrictions, which Gov. Brian Kemp’s administration has been implementing over the past week to the consternation of many residents. But with that bump in cases, he said, “There is a chance that we will fuel the disparities even more so.”
“Minority populations may be more at risk because they have to go to one of these places reopening to keep their job,” said Rupp. “And if they do get sick, what is their access to health-care and what is their insurance status? Those things are working against our minority population.”
“Some of the things that we know predict for worse outcomes for COVID-19 are seen more predominantly in some minority populations, like obesity, diabetes, smoking, and high blood pressure,” added Rupp, who said that economic differences, access to health care, and quality of health insurance only highlight those disparities. “Those differences are going to be accentuated by the pandemic.”
But the report also amplified cautions from public health experts in recent weeks that all people—regardless of race or other factors—are at risk.
The analysis of data in the Peach State, the authors wrote, suggests novel coronavirus infection “can cause significant morbidity in relatively young persons without severe underlying medical conditions,” even among those who “might not consider themselves to be at risk for severe illness.” That supports a larger body of reports and analyses across the globe finding that young people are more vulnerable than initially thought.
“We’ve been trying to emphasize that to people for some time,” said Rupp. “If you’re a young person without comorbid conditions, and you think you don’t have to worry about this disease, that’s just not a very accurate or responsible or realistic viewpoint.”
As Dr. Brittany Kmush, an assistant professor at Syracuse University who specializes in epidemiology, global health, and infectious diseases, put it, “People don’t understand the risk until it affects them personally.”