That means they are dying at a rate nearly six times that of white Chicagoans — a striking disparity that is also starting to emerge in other major cities.
Lightfoot (D) resolved Monday to launch an urgent public-health education and outreach campaign in the minority communities worst hit by the novel coronavirus, dispatching a rapid-response team to mitigate the devastating impact in those neighborhoods. The move also follows a Sunday report from WBEZ on the disproportionately high covid-19 death rate among black Chicagoans.
“Those numbers take your breath away. They really do,” Lightfoot said at a Monday news conference. “This is a call-to-action moment for all of us."
Chicago is among several major cities that have begun reckoning with the deadlier toll that the pandemic is wreaking on black communities, including New Orleans, Detroit and, as The Washington Post reported on extensively Monday, Milwaukee. The figures in Milwaukee County echo Chicago’s: Despite making up 28 percent of the county’s population, African Americans account for 73 percent of the county’s 45 deaths.
Many jurisdictions, however, have been slow to record coronavirus cases by race and ethnicity, making it difficult to fully gauge the impact the virus is having on minorities. On Monday, a civil rights group and hundreds of doctors petitioned the federal government to begin releasing that data to “better inform a robust public health response in the Black community,” as The Post reported.
Lightfoot acknowledged reporting issues as well among Chicago health care providers and in general. She said there is probably “significant underreporting” among Hispanics, who account for roughly 14 percent of the city’s known covid-19 cases and are 29 percent of the city’s overall population. Asians, representing about 7 percent of the population in Chicago, make up about 3.6 percent of known coronavirus cases.
She issued a public health order Monday requiring hospitals to share race and ethnicity data about covid-19 patients with the city.
“This is not negotiable,” she said. “We must understand the magnitude and impact of this virus on all of our communities.”
Public health experts have attributed the stark disparity to higher rates of chronic disease among black people compared to white, which puts them at higher risk of dying from covid-19, said Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Public Health Department. Across the board, data have shown people with underlying health conditions are more likely to die of the virus.
But Arwady said that, in turn, the higher rate of chronic disease among African Americans is also undeniably linked to decades of inequitable access to health care and economic opportunity compared to white people.
“The community conditions, the holes in our social safety net, the differing economic, educational opportunities, and fundamentally, the systemic and institutional racism that have driven these inequities over the years — we are now seeing it play out in our covid data,” she said.
In Chicago, a white person on average lives 8.8 years longer than a black person, Arwady said. Diabetes rates among black Chicagoans is double that of white Chicagoans. Deaths related to lung disease are more than 20 percent higher among black people compared to white, and almost two in five black adults have high blood pressure — a rate 25 percent higher than among whites.
“These underlying conditions are part of what are driving some of the racial inequities, but these inequities also reflect the conditions in which people live,” she said.
Some lower-income minority neighborhoods don’t have adequate access to grocery stores or healthy food, she said. Some don’t have safe, walkable streets, living exposed to violence. Some families are working multiple low-paying jobs to make ends meet. Because of all of this, Arwady said, even if the health care system were “perfect,” the racial disparities evident in the coronavirus data would probably still exist.
By the same token, social distancing can be difficult in low-income households, in which blue-collar jobs don’t allow for working from home, or where using public transportation is unavoidable.
“Social distancing, for a lot of people, is a privilege,” Oluwatoyin M. Adeyemi, an infectious disease specialist who has worked in Chicago for two decades, said at Monday’s news conference.
She noted how even some of the instructions from public health experts did not consider how poverty might make the instructions impossible to follow. People were urged to call their primary care physicians rather than go to emergency rooms if they were showing symptoms. Many people don’t have a primary care doctor, Adeyemi said. People were urged to go to a drive-through testing center rather than to the hospital. With what car?
“In this crisis, we are seeing just how urgent the issues of equity and opportunity are in Chicago,” Lightfoot said. “They are literally matters of life and death.”
Turning to the poster boards showing the sobering statistics in bar graphs, Lightfoot also urged people to remember that each stat represented immense loss, and invited the Rev. Marshall Hatch to the podium to tell his story.
Hatch, a longtime pastor in the city, said that in less than one week, three people he knew died of the virus or related symptoms. He lost his best friend of 45 years. He lost a member of his church. And he lost his 73-year-old sister, who died on a respirator.
How to grieve? There are no funerals, no last goodbyes. He learned of their deaths in phone calls. He planned ways to memorialize them while socially distant from family, friends and church members. On Sunday, he gave his virtual Palm Sunday service alone.
The sister who typically joined him, he told his virtual congregation, had tested positive for the virus.