Posted on August 14, 2020
Teresa and Marvin Bradley can’t say for sure how they got the coronavirus. Maybe Ms. Bradley, a Michigan nurse, brought it from her hospital. Maybe it came from a visiting relative. Maybe it was something else entirely.
What is certain — according to new federal data that provides the most comprehensive look to date on nearly 1.5 million coronavirus patients in America — is that the Bradleys are not outliers.
Racial disparities in who contracts the virus have played out in big cities like Milwaukee and New York, but also in smaller metropolitan areas like Grand Rapids, Mich., where the Bradleys live. Those inequities became painfully apparent when Ms. Bradley, who is Black, was wheeled through the emergency room.
“Everybody in there was African-American,” she said. “Everybody was.”
Early numbers had shown that Black and Latino people were being harmed by the virus at higher rates. But the new federal data — made available after The New York Times sued the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — reveals a clearer and more complete picture: Black and Latino people have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus in a widespread manner that spans the country, throughout hundreds of counties in urban, suburban and rural areas, and across all age groups.
Latino and African-American residents of the United States have been three times as likely to become infected as their white neighbors, according to the new data, which provides detailed characteristics of 640,000 infections detected in nearly 1,000 U.S. counties. And Black and Latino people have been nearly twice as likely to die from the virus as white people, the data shows.
The disparities persist across state lines and regions. They exist in rural towns on the Great Plains, in suburban counties, like Fairfax County, Va., and in many of the country’s biggest cities.
“Systemic racism doesn’t just evidence itself in the criminal justice system,” said Quinton Lucas, who is the third Black mayor of Kansas City, Mo., which is in a state where 40 percent of those infected are Black or Latino even though those groups make up just 16 percent of the state’s population. “It’s something that we’re seeing taking lives in not just urban America, but rural America, and all types of parts where, frankly, people deserve an equal opportunity to live — to get health care, to get testing, to get tracing.”
The data also showed several pockets of disparity involving Native American people. In much of Arizona and in several other counties, they were far more likely to become infected than white people. For people who are Asian, the disparities were generally not as large, though they were 1.3 times as likely as their white neighbors to become infected.
The new federal data, which is a major component of the agency's disease surveillance efforts, is far from complete. Not only is race and ethnicity information missing from more than half the cases, but so are other epidemiologically important clues — such as how the person might have become infected.
And because it includes only cases through the end of May, it doesn't reflect the recent surge in infections that has gripped parts of the nation.
Still, the data is more comprehensive than anything the agency has released to date, and The Times was able to analyze the racial disparity in infection rates across 974 counties representing more than half the U.S. population, a far more extensive survey than was previously possible.
Disparities in the suburbs
For the Bradleys, both in their early 60s, the symptoms didn’t seem like much at first. A tickle at the back of the throat.
But soon came fevers and trouble breathing, and when the pair went to the hospital, they were separated. Ms. Bradley was admitted while Mr. Bradley was sent home. He said he felt too sick to leave, but that he had no choice. When he got home, he felt alone and uncertain about how to treat the illness.
It took weeks, but eventually they both recovered. When Mr. Bradley returned to work in the engineering department of a factory several weeks later, a white co-worker told Mr. Bradley that he was the only person he knew who contracted the virus.
By contrast, Mr. Bradley said he knew quite a few people who had gotten sick. A few of them have died.
“We’re most vulnerable to this thing,” Mr. Bradley said.
In Kent County, which includes Grand Rapids and its suburbs, Black and Latino residents account for 63 percent of infections, though they make up just 20 percent of the county’s population. Public health officials and elected leaders in Michigan said there was no clear reason Black and Latino people in Kent County were even more adversely affected than in other parts of the country.
Among the 249 counties with at least 5,000 Black residents for which The Times obtained detailed data, the infection rate for African-American residents is higher than the rate for white residents in all but 14 of those counties. Similarly, for the 206 counties with at least 5,000 Latino residents analyzed by The Times, 178 have higher infection rates for Latino residents than for white residents.
“As an African-American woman, it’s just such an emotional toll,” said Teresa Branson, the deputy administrative health officer in Kent County, whose agency has coordinated with Black pastors and ramped up testing in hard-hit neighborhoods.
Experts point to circumstances that have made Black and Latino people more likely than white people to be exposed to the virus:
Many of them have front-line jobs that keep them from working at home; rely on public transportation; or live in cramped apartments or multigenerational homes.
“You literally can’t isolate with one bathroom,” said Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II, who leads Michigan’s task force on coronavirus racial disparities.
‘We just have to keep working'
Latino people have also been infected at a jarringly disparate rate compared with white people. One of the most alarming hot spots is also one of the wealthiest: Fairfax County, just outside of Washington, D.C.
Three times as many white people live there as Latinos. Yet through the end of May, four times as many Latino residents had tested positive for the virus, according to the C.D.C. data.
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