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.
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“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.
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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.
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