CHICAGO — Black Chicagoans are dying from the coronavirus at a rate higher than any other racial demographic, public records show, a reflection of the deadly consequences that economically disadvantaged communities have faced for generations.
About 68% of the city’s deaths have involved African Americans, who make up only about 30% of Chicago’s total population, according to an examination of data from the Cook County medical examiner’s office and the Chicago Department of Public Health. The sobering statistics suggest black Chicagoans are dying at a rate nearly six times greater than white residents.
“Those numbers take your breath away,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Monday. “This is a call to action for all of us.”
The Rev. Marshall Hatch, pastor of New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church in West Garfield Park, has borne witness to the coronavirus’s deadly grasp on his community in recent days. His best friend, Larry Harris, died last week from COVID-19. A congregation member, a man who often did handiwork around the church without seeking payment, died over the weekend from what Hatch said were related symptoms.
And on Saturday, the pastor lost to the virus his older sister Rhoda Hatch, a retired Chicago Public Schools teacher who helped raise him after his mother died. Hatch said his 73-year-old sister, who had asthma, started showing symptoms last month and declined rapidly.
“I prayed with her, but I had a feeling that was going to be our last communication, that she wasn’t going to come out of the intubation,” he said.
All three families are now planning memorial services in which everyone must keep a social distance. No extended families gathering, no consoling embraces from friends or churches crowded with mourners.
“The pain is real,” Hatch said. “As Dr. (Martin Luther) King said, ‘Of all of the disparities created by inequities in our society, health care may be the most inhumane.’ And I think this pandemic of 2020 magnifies that truth.”
Indeed, some of the hardest hit communities on the South and West sides have struggled with unemployment and health care access for generations. As a result, residents have higher baseline rates of diabetes, heart disease, lung disease and high blood pressure — the chronic conditions that make the coronavirus even more deadly.
Even before the pandemic, these chronic conditions attributed to a life-expectancy gap in the city. On average, white Chicagoans live nine years longer than black residents, with half of the disparity due to chronic illnesses and smoking rates in black communities, public health officials said.
Black Chicagoans also could be contracting the disease at higher rates, experts said, for socioeconomic reasons such as being unable to work from home, a reliance on public transportation or living in dwellings with multiple people.
“It does appear that there is a greater risk of infection or greater risk of death, but we don’t know what it is,” said Diane Lauderdale, an epidemiologist and chair of the Department of Public Health Sciences at the University of Chicago.
The racial disparity isn’t something unique to Chicago. Early data shows a disproportionate number of black residents in Milwaukee and Detroit have contracted and died from the coronavirus. Michigan public health officials released data last week showing that African Americans accounted for 35% of confirmed cases and 40% of the state’s deaths, though they make up little more than 14% of its population.
The problem in Chicago had been highlighted in recent days on social media and in a WBEZ-FM 91.5 report. On Monday, Lightfoot addressed the issue, saying that the city is ordering health care providers to collect total demographic information from patients. Some aren’t collecting and sharing that data, making it harder to determine just how wide the racial disparity gap truly is.
The city also will start using bigger buses to promote social distancing and send inspectors into grocery stores and corner shops to ensure that they’re enforcing social distancing.
“If you do not, we will shut you down,” Lightfoot said at a news conference.
The city’s data shows confirmed COVID-19 cases in every age group and ZIP code across Chicago, and the numbers reinforce scientific studies showing that people who are older or have underlying medical conditions are more susceptible to severe illness or death. Almost one-third of Chicago coronavirus diagnoses and 71% of deaths have involved people older than 60, though that age group represents only 18% of Chicago’s population.
About 97% of the city’s COVID-19 deaths involved underlying conditions, according to city data.
As of Monday, 1,969 black Chicagoans, 891 white Chicagoans, 523 Latino Chicagoans and 134 Asian Chicagoans had been diagnosed with COVID-19. About 25% of diagnosed cases did not have race or ethnicity recorded, and officials have warned about underreporting among Hispanic residents, suggesting the virus’s impact on minority communities could be even greater.
Six of the 10 ZIP codes with the most coronavirus-related deaths in Cook County are in Chicago, the data shows. Deaths were concentrated in majority-black, South Side neighborhoods including Auburn Gresham, South Chicago, South Shore and Chatham.
“This is not just about racial and ethnic disparity and the outcomes,” Lightfoot said. “The distribution of this disease tells the story about resources and inequality. A story about unequal health care access, job access and community investment. Dynamics we know all too well here in the city of Chicago and something all of us have been talking about and fighting against for years.”
Longtime Auburn Gresham resident Carl Redd, an Army veteran, died from COVID-related complications on March 21 at age 62. He had severe asthma and struggled to afford medical treatment for his chronic condition even though he qualified for care through Veterans Affairs.
Redd, who was a good-natured retired HVAC repairman and king of the backyard barbecue, had been in too poor of health to work and died without a life insurance policy, according to his family. Delliah Redd said her father never fully recovered from a severe asthma attack in late October.
“I was under the impression if you’re a veteran you get better health care, but every time he had an asthma attack, they’d bill him,” she said. “A lot of times he wouldn’t go because he didn’t want another bill or they’d want him to stay overnight but he’d be ready to go (home) after the first treatment because he was worried (about the cost).”
Black Chicagoans have found it increasingly difficult to obtain medical care during the pandemic, as emergency rooms have discouraged people from coming in for minor ailments. Many hospitals are advising people to go see their primary care physicians instead, though some residents in economically challenged neighborhoods don’t have one.
More and more, illnesses are going untreated in these neighborhoods until they become life-threatening, said Dr. Oluwatoyin M. Adeyemi, an infectious disease specialist who has worked on the West Side for two decades.
“When we got to the point where we told people to stay home, they couldn’t get the albuterol inhalers, they couldn’t get treatment for their conditions,” Adeyemi said. “They didn’t know who to call, how to reach anyone. … We talked about doing drive-thru testing, people don’t have cars.”
The problem is being driven equally hard by economic disinvestment and other issues on the South and West sides, experts said. Social distancing, for example, is more easily accomplished by people who can work from home, drive their own vehicles and have multiple grocery stores from which to order delivery.
“There’s a saying, ‘When America has the cold, black America has the flu,’” said Lionel Allen, who works at University of Illinois at Chicago’s Department of Educational Policy Studies and is on the board of the black-majority Masjid at-Taqwa mosque in South Chicago. “You think about rates of diabetes, rates of obesity within our community, the food deserts, all of these long-standing, institutionalized inequities continue to play in our communities.”
Allen said the community’s instinct has been to find a way to provide resources to those in need, rather than waiting on the government.
“You’re not necessarily going to believe that this entity is going to help you,” he said. “There is rhetoric and there are press conferences where people say nice things, but when it comes to flooding those communities with resources, you don’t really see that.”
It’s against this backdrop that myths about the coronavirus began spreading in the black community last month, officials said. Some suggested that it was a white person’s disease to which young African American men were immune.
One organization that typically works primarily to prevent violence on the South Side has broadened its focus in recent weeks to also hand out literature about COVID-19.
Autry Phillips, executive director of Target Area Development Corp., said he wants to correct the inaccurate information before it costs more lives. He said older folks understand and have been taking heed, but the younger crowd had needed more convincing.
“Unfortunately, this particular virus doesn’t care how cool you are or how invincible you are,” Phillips said. “We have to hit them with statistics.”
Building awareness is another avenue to address the disparity. Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Monday that the state’s campaign includes social media and public service announcements about staying home, washing hands and taking other steps to slow the spread.
“Communities of color — and particularly black communities in the city of Chicago, suburban Cook County, and cities and towns all across our state — disproportionately shoulder the health care conditions that lead to worse outcomes with COVID-19,” Pritzker said. “And to put into words what often is left unsaid, that’s a product of generations of systemic disinvestment in communities of color, compounded by disparities in health care delivery systems and access.”
(Chicago Tribune’s Gregory Pratt, Dan Petrella, John Byrne and Joe Mahr contributed.)
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