Posted on April 14, 2020

Coronavirus Lays Racial Health Disparities Bare

Jerry Nowicki, Capitol News Illinois, April 12, 2020

While African-Americans make up just less than 15% of Illinois’ population, they account for about 43% of the state’s 596 COVID-19 fatalities and 28% of its 17,887 confirmed cases, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

In a virtual town hall meeting on the issue earlier this week, state public health and African-American community leaders agreed that COVID-19 is not creating, but rather is laying bare, long-standing public health disparities along racial lines.

“COVID-19 is putting these long-lasting inequities on display,” said Congresswoman Robin Kelly, a Democrat and former Peorian who represents Illinois’ 2nd Congressional District in the south suburbs of Chicago and serves as the Congressional Black Caucus Health Braintrust chair. “The adage is true — when they get a cold, we get pneumonia.”

IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said a number of factors — such as preexisting conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes, which are more prevalent in black communities — are contributing to the disproportionate impact of COVID-19, making the “horrific” statistics “not totally unexpected.”

Ezike and various leaders also said African-Americans often live in more crowded, multigenerational homes, and many still must work in public-facing positions because they are essential yet low-wage workers who cannot afford to take time off.

“We believe that these disparities, or these differences, are the result of injustices, things like redlining (excluding certain neighborhoods from access to financial services), economic disinvestment, less access to health care or health insurance, food insecurity, the list goes on,” Dr. Kiran Joshi, co-director of the Cook County Department of Public Health, said in the virtual town hall.

While Joshi said there is an “increasing understanding” in public health and government that the underlying reason for such disparities is “structural racism,” he noted, “No single local public health department or health care organization or elected official could do this on their own.”

For leaders throughout African-American communities statewide, current efforts are focusing on local community outreach with trusted organizations, a call for greater testing and data collection, and a focus on promoting available state and local resources.

On Friday, Gov. JB Pritzker announced plans for greater testing and available alternative housing in black communities as well.

‘With black communities, not for black communities’

In Chicago, where the deaths are greatest and the racial disparity appears to be the largest, nearly 70% of recorded COVID-19 deaths were in African-Americans as of earlier this week, according to reports from WBEZ-FM radio and the Chicago Tribune.

Sophia King, an alderman in the nation’s third-largest city, said in order to address longstanding inequities, “we have to identify all of those buckets of disparity and turn them on their head.”


Candace Moore, Chicago’s chief equity officer, said while the city has been advocating widely for the stay-at-home order, more targeted outreach to the African-American community is needed. The city launched a racial equity rapid response team this week to lead the hyperlocal effort.

“I think one of the core tenets that we think about as we approach this is we have to have conversations with black communities, not for black communities,” she said.


New developments

In an appearance with black leaders during his daily briefing Friday, Pritzker echoed the comments on racial disparities and announced the expansion of testing and new alternate housing options for COVID-positive persons that need to isolate.

The governor said a partnership with Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and four federally qualified health centers on Chicago’s south and west sides will “expand testing in these communities over the next several days to an additional 400 tests per day.”

Three locations in the Metro East region will offer up to 470 swabs per day starting early next week, Pritzker said, and those will be sent to Anderson Hospital in Madison County for testing.

He also announced a state-run south suburban drive-thru testing center will open early next week in the Markham-Harvey area, and it will run “hundreds of tests per day.”

“We must increase testing everywhere,” Pritzker said. “It isn’t just in Chicago, just in Cook County or just in the black community — everywhere in the state. In fact that is going to be the key for us, getting out of this crisis.”

Pritzker also noted alternate housing will be available for people who need isolation, such as those living in multigenerational homes.

These rooms will be available to residents who tested positive for COVID-19 but do not require hospital-level care or who need social distancing as a precautionary measure. These rooms will also be available to medical professionals and first responders and can be accessed through local health departments.

Pritzker said previously the state has also planned the reopening of recently closed health care facilities in black communities to ensure access to care as well.