The Current

As some states see black Americans hit harder by COVID-19, researchers call for detailed Canadian data

A recent report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control suggests that African Americans might be disproportionately affected by the coronavirus. Researchers and advocates are calling for race and ethnicity information to be included in Canada's COVID-19 statistics.

'Data is absolutely essential here because, if not, we can't begin to address the problem': professor

A health-care worker talks on her phone while taking a break outside Elmhurst Hospital during the outbreak of the COVID-19 in the Queens borough of New York City. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

Despite being diagnosed with COVID-19, Celeste Demby says doctors at an Atlanta hospital "dismissed" her cousin's condition one day before she died.

She believes it was because she was African American.

Demby says her cousin Alexis Demby, 34, went to Kennestone Hospital's emergency room on March 21, struggling to breathe. She had been diagnosed with COVID-19 about a week earlier.

"They didn't take her seriously and they didn't admit her or do any checks or anything about why she couldn't breathe," Demby told The Current's Matt Galloway.

"I guess they just chalked it up to the COVID and the pneumonia, but apparently it was something more serious and we never got to find out what that was."

According to Demby, Alexis was sent home that night and died the next day. 

In an emailed statement to The Current, Wellstar Health System, which Kennestone Hospital is a part of, said it "cannot comment on the specifics regarding any patient's location, condition or identity," citing patient privacy.

It added that it is "intentional about creating a workplace that is inclusive," and a "multicultural" workforce that represents its patients and communities. 

Alexis Demby, left, died in March as a result of complications from COVID-19. Her cousin, Celeste Demby, right, believes that the hospital she visited the day before her death 'dismissed' her case because she is African American. (Submitted by Celeste Demby)

On Wednesday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control published a report examining 1,482 patients from 14 states during the month of March.

Of 580 confirmed cases for which race information was available, 33 per cent of patients were black, "suggesting that black populations might be disproportionately affected by COVID-19."

The authors acknowledged that additional data is needed.

Some U.S. states and cities are releasing data showing cases and deaths by race, but there is no standardized approach.

In Canada, race or ethnicity are rarely included in health statistics, despite calls from researchers and advocates. 

In Chicago, official data found that 72 per cent of COVID-19-related deaths were among African Americans, despite making up only 52 per cent of the city's coronavirus infections, according to a Reuters report.

"Those numbers take your breath away. This is a call to action moment for all of us," Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said.

During a White House press briefing on Tuesday, U.S. President Donald Trump acknowledged the disparity, calling it "a tremendous challenge."

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Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, added that a higher rate of comorbidities among African Americans — including obesity, hypertension and diabetes — is leading to worse outcomes for those diagnosed with COVID-19.

"There's nothing we can do about it right now, except to try and give them the best possible care to avoid those complications," he told reporters.

'Everything in America is racialized'

The night before her cousin's death, Demby's husband also began showing signs of COVID-19. While he eventually received treatment for the disease at a New York City hospital, she says they initially treated him in a similarly dismissive manner.

"Everything in America is racialized, even health care where you think things should be equal," she told Galloway.

That racial minorities have disproportionately worse health outcomes than other populations is nothing new, says Sharrelle Barber, an assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at Drexel University School of Public Health.

She says that the high COVID-19 death rates among African Americans in many states — including New York, Louisiana, Mississippi and Milwaukee — are "to be expected" given "some of the discriminatory and racially-biased practices within the health-care system."

That's why Barber and her colleagues have been examining the COVID-19 pandemic through the lens of systemic racism.

"Everyone was saying, 'Oh, it's a great equalizer,'" Barber told The Current, "but we knew from past experiences — go back to incidences of tuberculosis, for example, and you had higher rates among blacks in the early late 18th century, early 1900s."

It's not just secondary health conditions that are leading to higher death rates among African Americans, Barber said. Marginalized groups are often employed in low-wage jobs, including the service industry, which is now deemed essential, putting them at greater risk of catching the disease.

Not only does that put the individual at risk, she says, it increases the likelihood that it will be spread among communities.

Canada needs similar data

Concern for how COVID-19 will affect marginalized groups isn't limited to the United States. Researchers and advocates in Canada are raising the alarm that race-based data, particularly when it comes to health, needs to be collected.

"In Canada, people of African descent suffer disproportionately in just about every socioeconomic variable," says June Francis, director of Simon Fraser University's Institute of Diaspora Research.

June Francis is the director of Simon Fraser University's Institute for Diaspora Research. (Submitted by June Francis)

As it stands, most governments and health agencies across Canada do not collect data based on race.

Francis argues researchers are "flying in the dark."

At Tuesday's briefing, Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief public health officer, said Canada is collecting detailed data related to COVID-19 and it's released daily on the government's website. 

But the posted government data only specifies age and gender.

"We do know that certain groups have quite a lot of impacts in terms of severity and death, and those are people are in the older age groups," Tam said.

Francis says that without detailed and consistent race data, little can be done to support marginalized communities.

"I think the data is absolutely essential here, because if not, we can't begin to address the problem."

Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Arman Aghbali, Matthew Amha and Jessica Linzey.

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