Black people across Illinois are dying from COVID-19 at 3.4 times the rate of the white population

The impact of the coronavirus on Latinx and Hispanic communities is likely underreported due to incomplete demographic data, authorities say.

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Black residents in Illinois are seeing significantly higher rates of confirmed cases and deaths from the coronavirus than white residents, according to a Chicago Reporter analysis of data provided by the Illinois Department of Public Health. 

Outside Chicago, black Illinoisans are currently dying from COVID-19 at 3.4 times the rate of white residents. Black residents account for 42% of coronavirus related deaths statewide and nearly 30% of the 11,256 confirmed cases in Illinois so far, despite only accounting for about 14% of the state population, according to Census data.

The disproportionate racial impact of COVID-19 cases and deaths is being felt most dramatically within Chicago, where officials on Monday released new demographic data on the spread of the disease in the city, which is considered a national hot spot for the coronavirus.

Black Chicagoans are currently dying at five times the rate of white Chicagoans, according to an analysis of data from the Chicago Department of Public Health. 

The figures build on those found in a WBEZ analysis of Cook County Medical Examiner’s office data published over the weekend. 

“This isn’t a problem that’s unique to Chicago. We’re seeing this manifest in large urban areas with large black populations all over the United States. Milwaukee, Cleveland, Detroit and other places are experiencing the same thing,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a press conference Monday. “The numbers are weighted more heavily on the South and the West sides and among our most economically vulnerable communities.”

The official counts likely understate the actual spread of infection as the availability of testing to confirm cases remains limited across the state, meaning what is known about the demographic impact may be incomplete or skewed. Incomplete reporting is also a problem, as the field for race was left blank or information was missing in about a quarter of confirmed cases on both the city and state levels. 

Latinx and Hispanic ethnicities are also believed to be underreported in COVID-19 cases, CDPH Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said Monday, often because busy health providers can be uncomfortable asking about a patient’s race, a common issue in medical data. Her department signed a public health order enhancing data-sharing requirements including complete demographic information on COVID-19 patients. 

“It means that people need to ask also,” Arwady said. “We need Chicago’s providers to take the time to ask the question and to ensure that it’s entered.” 

City officials attribute the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on black Chicagoans to higher baseline rates of chronic underlying conditions as well as pre-existing racial disparities in health care access.

“By and large, this is not, I’m sorry to say, a surprising story,” Arwady said. “Fundamentally, the systemic and institutional racism that have driven these inequities over the years, we are now seeing play out in our COVID data.” 

The city is forming a Racial Equity Rapid Response Team in partnership with West Side United and a community awareness campaign with AARP to curb the disparate impact of the disease on the South and West sides. Lightfoot also tied her administration’s COVID-19 response to her anti-poverty agenda, as longtime issues of equity and opportunity are exacerbating outcomes and posing barriers to healthcare for poor Chicagoans. 

“We do know that our populations of color need additional resources,” Dr. Oluwatoyin M. Adeyemi, infectious disease physician and former senior director of HIV services at Cook County Health said about the challenges communities of color face in being able to quarantine at the press conference. “Social distancing for a lot of people is a privilege,” she said, pointing to how communities of color are more likely to rely on public transportation, live in close quarters, and be unable to work from home. 

IDPH began publishing statewide demographic data on COVID-19 cases and deaths last Friday, highlighting the racial disparities.  “It’s hard to make up for decades, frankly, maybe centuries of inequality of application of health care to people,” Gov. J.B. Pritzker said at his press briefing Sunday, pointing to plans to reopen shuttered hospitals to serve as relief health care centers during the crisis, WTTW reported. 

Some Democratic lawmakers are calling on the federal government to collect and release data on the race and ethnicity of those affected by the coronavirus nationwide.

“It is critical that the federal government make a concerted effort to account for existing racial disparities in health care access and how persistent inequities may exacerbate these disparities in the weeks and months to come as our nation responds to this global health pandemic,” five members of Congress, including Illinois Rep. Robin Kelly, along with Rep. Ayanna Pressley and former presidential candidates Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Cory Booker and Sen. Kamala Harris, wrote in a March 27 letter to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.

“Without demographic data, policy makers and researchers will have no way to identify and address ongoing disparities and health inequities that risk accelerating the impact of the novel coronavirus and the respiratory disease it causes,” the letter said

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released information on the location and age of those infected by COVID-19, but not race, and has not responded to inquiries or a request by ProPublica about race-related data on the coronavirus.