Black Colorado residents face higher rates of coronavirus infection, death

People of color in Colorado have been disproportionately impacted by the novel coronavirus, Gov. Jared Polis said Monday.

The state’s black, Hispanic and Latino populations have seen disproportionately high rates of novel coronavirus infections compared to their share of the population, according to information Polis released Monday, as confirmed novel coronavirus cases rose to 7,684 in the state, with 1,472 people hospitalized and 304 deaths.

The state’s data shows that black residents are seeing higher rates of both infections and deaths than their share of the population, while the state’s Hispanic and Latino communities are seeing a disproportionate rate of infections but not a disproportionate number of deaths.

The state has not released specific numbers on the racial breakdown of coronavirus cases and deaths, but Polis displayed a bar graph at a news conference Monday.

Polis said he would leave it up to scientists to try to explain Colorado’s disproportionate race data, noting it “could be a proxy for economic disparities.”

“We are all together here as a state,” Polis said. “People live in integrated communities. You can’t say we’re stopping it for Hispanics and not for white people, or for blacks and not white people.”

The preliminary statewide data on race reflects nationwide trends and is similar to the way the novel coronavirus is impacting Denver residents. Early data released by Denver Public Health on Friday showed black residents faced higher rates of infection, hospitalization and death than white, Hispanic or Latino residents.

The data available is limited in part by the fact that not everyone who becomes sick with COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, is tested.

Some health care experts point to systemic societal and health inequities as a driver for the coronavirus’ heavier impact on black Americans, who suffer from higher rates of obesity, diabetes and asthma — underlying health conditions that make patients more susceptible to complications from the novel coronavirus. Black people also are over-represented in service industry jobs and positions that cannot be done remotely, putting them at additional risk for contracting COVID-19.

Dr. Terri Richardson, a physician and vice chair at the Colorado Black Health Collaborative, said Monday that while systemic disparities play a part in the impact of coronavirus on black residents, more specific data is needed to determine exactly what is going on in Colorado and how to counteract it.

“I know most people are saying it’s related to the disinvestment in black communities, longstanding health disparities, a lot of social determinants, or it’s because African Americans are doing front-facing jobs, bus driving, working at restaurants — these are the types of things you hear,” she said. “But for me, I think that we have to really try to take a deeper dive into this data. Really what is happening?”

She said the state needs to provide specific information on the black patients who are dying from COVID-19 that examines the patients’ risk factors like age, chronic diseases or occupation — details that go beyond solely the patients’ race.

“What are the details of the people dying?” she said. “Did they present and were they in the hospital for five minutes, were they there for 14 days, how did they get it — what are some of the demographics around them, other than they were black? The social determinate issue, the racism, that is all real, but we’ve got to still take that, and the specifics.”

Knowing that information, she said, would allow health officials and organizations to tailor their prevention and education efforts to the particular impacted population, rather than casting a wide net.

Nationwide, there have been calls for public health agencies to release racial and income data related to understand the spread of the new coronavirus and know who is becoming sick with the respiratory illness.

“If we’re not able to see clearly what’s going on in different communities, we’re not going to be able to allocate resources appropriately,” Dr. Richard Besser, former acting director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Black residents have been harder hit by the virus in New York, Detroit, Chicago, New Orleans and Milwaukee.

“We have to think about how those populations are being affected when they get infected,” said Elaine Nsoesie, assistant professor of global health at Boston University’s School of Public Health. “Are people having access to testing on time?”

Richardson said the Colorado Black Health Collaborative has focused its efforts so far on countering misinformation about the novel coronavirus and educating residents on when to stay home and when to seek care. Some in the black community, she said, have hesitated to seek healthcare even when they’re sick.

“There’s been a problem with trust, as well as being empowered in the health care system when it comes to our black populations and other populations of color,” she said.

Others, experts said, simply can’t afford to stay home and social distance.

“So many of the things that we tell people to do to reduce the outbreak on individuals are things that for many people are nonstarters,” Besser said. “Asking people to stay home and social distance to protect themselves and their families and their communities, for millions of people you are asking them to not put food on the table and pay the rent.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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