Why coronavirus is infecting, killing blacks at an alarming rate

  • Experts say the coronavirus is spreading at an alarmingly high rate in Chicago and surrounding suburban black communities. Here is a breakdown of COVID-19 cases by race in Cook County.

    Experts say the coronavirus is spreading at an alarmingly high rate in Chicago and surrounding suburban black communities. Here is a breakdown of COVID-19 cases by race in Cook County. COURTESY OF COOK COUNTY PUBLIC HEALTH

  • A breakdown of COVID-19 cases by race in Illinois.

    A breakdown of COVID-19 cases by race in Illinois. COURTESY OF ILLINOIS DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC HEALTH

  • COURTESY OF ILLINOIS DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC HEALTHBlacks comprise 43% of Illinois' 462 COVID-19 deaths, as of Wednesday, and only about 15% of the state's population. Here is a breakdown of COVID-19 deaths by race in Illinois.

    COURTESY OF ILLINOIS DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC HEALTHBlacks comprise 43% of Illinois' 462 COVID-19 deaths, as of Wednesday, and only about 15% of the state's population. Here is a breakdown of COVID-19 deaths by race in Illinois.

  • Randy Hodges

    Randy Hodges

  • Dr. Courtney Coke

    Dr. Courtney Coke

  • Dr. Rachel Rubin

    Dr. Rachel Rubin

 
 
Updated 4/8/2020 8:14 PM

In nearly a month of COVID-19 lockdown, Randy Hodges has been teleconferencing with doctors for checkups on his thyroid condition and leading online Bible studies as an associate pastor at Second Baptist Church of Elgin.

Hodges says it's a small price to pay for protecting himself from contracting the respiratory illness since he falls into two high-risk categories -- he is 70 years old and African American.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

National and state data show African Americans are more susceptible to contracting COVID-19 due to preexisting health problems and to dying from it.

"It's just a part of our life," said Hodges, an adjunct professor of multicultural education at Elgin Community College. "(The pandemic) has emphasized what we've known all along. ... We are subjected to a lot of things that the other communities may not be subjected to."

Blacks account for 43% of Illinois' 462 COVID-19 deaths, as of Wednesday, but comprise only about 15% of the state's population, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health and census data.

It's the highest COVID-19 mortality rate of any race compared to the race's overall proportion of the total population -- whites, 36% of deaths to 77% of residents; Hispanics, 8% of deaths to 17.4% population; and Asians, nearly 4% of deaths to about 6% population, data shows. Race has not been identified in nearly 7% of deaths.

Experts say the disease also is spreading at an alarmingly high rate in Chicago and surrounding suburban black communities. Of the state's 15,078 confirmed cases by Wednesday's count, 28% were black, 26.5% white, 10.5% Hispanic, 3.3% Asian, 26.4% weren't identified by race and 5% were marked as other.

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Environmental, economic, health and political factors combined with decades of systemic disinvestment in black communities over generations has put blacks at higher risk of chronic health conditions, including asthma, heart and lung diseases, high blood pressure, hypertension, cancer and diabetes, experts say.

Perhaps the silver lining of this pandemic is that it has shined a light on the severe inequities affecting African Americans and other communities of color.

"(It shows) who has access to immediate health care, who puts themselves at risk and who is most likely to be exposed to the virus," said Dr. Courtney Coke, medical director of the radiation oncology department at Advocate Sherman Hospital in Elgin. "It is as a result of underlying issues of poor access to health care in that population. Some people simply cannot get in to see a physician. They wait until the very late stages, until they have very bad shortness of breath and pneumonia."

Inadequate education about health issues and not having insurance or the means to pay for care also are barriers. Lack of access to quality medical care, health facilities and safe environments to exercise, as well as healthy food and housing insecurity are among the reasons why blacks are predisposed to chronic illnesses, said Dr. Rachel Rubin, interim co-chief operating officer for the Cook County Department of Public Health.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Living with the stress of structural racism makes matters worse, increasing the risk of hypertension, heart disease and stroke, Rubin said, citing studies.

Lower-wage service industry workers, predominantly being from black and Latino communities, who cannot afford to stay home and not work is another reason for the disparity in who is being exposed, infected and killed.

"These individuals live paycheck to paycheck," Rubin said. "They are frequently working in essential services, such as food, transportation and home care. They take public transportation. They are out in the open being exposed to other individuals because they can't afford not to be."

A breakdown of COVID-19 cases and deaths by race is yet unavailable for all counties. But suburban Cook County has the lion's share of both after Chicago.

Blacks are dying at a rate of 12.6 people per 100,000 population in the county -- three times the rate for whites, 4.3 and Asians, 4.7 and six times the rate for Hispanics, 2, Cook County Department of Public Health data shows.

Of the 2,667 confirmed cases, blacks were infected at a rate of 304 people per 100,000 population compared to the rates for Asians at 97.8, whites at 85.8 and Hispanics at 69.8.

The rapid spread of the virus through suburban communities shows the need for resources to provide greater access to health care for marginalized populations, experts say.

"One person at risk puts everybody at risk," Coke said.

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