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Public health agencies across the nation have been slow to release data detailing specific demographics of those sickened and killed by the coronavirus, but as they do, it’s clear certain Americans are being disproportionately affected: African-Americans.
Roughly 27% of South Carolina’s 5.1 million residents are black, but, according to state data as of April 14, 41% of the people who have tested positive for COVID-19 are black, and African-Americans comprise 56% of those who have died.
As of Thursday, the new coronavirus has claimed 109 South Carolinian lives.
The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control has confirmed five Sumterites have died from the respiratory illness. Sumter County Coroner Robbie Baker’s office has nine on the books, eight of whom, or 89%, were black, one white. Sumter County’s population of 106,721 is 47.9% black and 47.9% white.
Getting that breakdown isn't easy everywhere.
In Clarendon County, which on Thursday became the county with the highest rate of infection in the state, Coroner Bucky Mock is having trouble getting information from the local hospital on who died from the virus. He did say he knows both races are represented in Clarendon’s victims, which was officially at six on Thursday.
The numbers don’t surprise health care workers.
“Health disparities by race have been a problem in our society for decades,” said Michelle Logan-Owens, CEO at Prisma Health Tuomey Hospital in Sumter. “This virus has only amplified them.”
Myriad systemic, socio-economic factors formed and perpetuate demographic disparities.
According to an Associated Press analysis of victims whose demographic data was publicly shared by officials about 42% were black. African-Americans make up 21% of the total population in the areas covered by the analysis, which spanned eight states, six of Florida’s largest counties and six major U.S. cities, including New York City and the District of Columbia.
According to AP, Michigan’s population is 14% black, but more than half of those who died where race demographics were collected were black.
In South Carolina, as the number of deaths topped 100 on Wednesday, all but two people who have died had underlying health conditions, according to DHEC data. Health conditions for two more of the 107 victims so far were still being investigated as of Wednesday.
DHEC spokeswoman Laura Renwick said the most common underlying health conditions among the deceased have been heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure.
Statewide and nationally, African-Americans are more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes, heart disease, obesity, asthma and high blood pressure (hypertension), putting them at a higher risk of developing complications from COVID-19.
Of the roughly 528,000 adults in South Carolina who have been diagnosed with diabetes, according to DHEC, 17.8% are black, while 12.4% are white.
The state agency shows African-Americans face a higher risk of developing ischemic heart disease and die from strokes more often.
Being overweight increases the risk of heart disease by 32%, and 76% of African-Americans in South Carolina are overweight or obese.
Adults with diabetes are two to four times more likely to have heart disease than adults without diabetes. According to state data, one out of every five black adults in South Carolina has diabetes, which is 47% higher than the rate for white adults.
According to Live Health SC, Hispanic/Latino and black residents were more likely to delay seeing a doctor because of cost in 2018, and white residents were more likely to have health insurance.
Logan-Owens, who has helped spearhead a partnership between Tuomey and Sumter Family YMCA to fight and prevent childhood obesity, said food accessibility and affordability are vital. Who can afford healthy food, and who lives closer to grocery stores or other sources of fresh produce? Who has transportation to get to a grocery store if there isn’t one close to home?
“Do they have access to basic essentials to live a healthier life? Are there sidewalks and parks to walk on to get exercise? Do they have transportation to get to the doctor’s office?” Logan-Owens said.
When African-Americans work public-facing jobs, such as cashiers and caregivers, they can’t work from home, putting them at risk. COVID-19 is just as contagious for every human, but black Americans are more likely to get sicker and die from it.
Logan-Owens said a long-term solution needs to address “revamping the entire health care system to make sure no one is left behind.”
“As a nation, how do we improve access to care? How do we make sure that not only do we give access, but put programs in place to support ongoing maintenance of health?” she said. “We can prescribe medications, but if you can’t afford it or get to the pharmacy, it doesn’t do you any good.”
With gaps in access to those essentials, community leaders and structures step in to fill the hole.
Jehovah Missionary Baptist Church may be conducting services online, but it is continuing to care for its congregants and community. It distributes food to 30-40 people and more at times, according to the Rev. Marion Newton, senior pastor, twice a week through its House of Hope. They have an accompanying program called the House of Love prepared next to its sanctuary on South Harvin Street as an overflow shelter for Sumter United Ministries, a faith-based emergency services nonprofit.
Newton said he thinks COVID-19 will change our lifestyle in a more fundamental and widespread way than 9/11 did. That’s the only event in his lifetime he said even comes close to comparing this pandemic to.
This, still, is different.
“It’s killing people all over,” he said.
Every aspect of life will be reexamined, he said. How will we worship after this? Will we socialize the same way? Will we eat from a restaurant buffet? Will everyone get their temperature taken at the airport?
Hopefully, he said, that reexamination addresses why black communities see higher rates of underlying health conditions.
“I think America needs to look at our health more than they have in the past. I don’t think we’ve been good stewards with what God has given to us,” Newton said. “Not only for African-Americans, but for all people. We’ve been putting too much emphasis on material stuff, leaving our environment and our health out of it.”
Just as disparities when it comes to COVID-19 and health outcomes between white and black patients have not surprised the health care industry, they do not surprise Melanie Colclough.
“When you live it and your loved ones and family make up the statistical data, it’s not a surprise,” said Colclough, executive director of Patriot Hall and the Sumter County Cultural Center.
A system that needs changing can be difficult to talk about, but the shame, she said, would be not learning a lesson out of it.
“Sometimes, when you don’t have to walk in someone’s shoes, you may not be aware of the challenges they may have,” she said.
She has not been without her challenges, ones you can't see from the surface.
You may look at Colclough’s husband, David, for example, and see his shopping cart full of groceries. You may think he’s hoarding. You may not be aware he changes clothes before walking in his home to avoid potentially bringing the virus inside, where the multiple loaves of bread and dozens of eggs feed the family of seven for just a few days. You may not be aware the Colcloughs might not have felt called to adopt their five children had they not first lost their son, Gabriel, in Melanie’s eighth month of pregnancy.
She tries to learn from forced hardship. She said she hopes we all can from this, too.
“I’m not surprised by (the disparities)," she said, "but I’m glad it’s a conversation people are having now so we can be each other’s keepers.”
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