Press Release

Nurses Call for More Data, Action to Address Racial Disparities During COVID-19 Crisis

nurse holding sign

Following reports of a growing racial disparity in COVID-19 deaths, National Nurses United today called on the federal government and states to provide full reporting on the demographic breakdown of the effects of the pandemic and what actions are being taken to protect historically medically underserved communities.

News reports have raised alarms about a disproportionate death rate among African Americans in Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, and New Orleans. A Washington Post survey Tuesday found that counties that are primarily African American have three times the rate of infections and almost six times the rate of deaths as counties where white residents are in the majority.

Similar concerns are emerging of a greater impact for Native American, Latino, and other medically underserved communities, noted NNU. 

“These early reports indicate a widespread pattern and problem throughout the U.S. especially given the long, deplorable history of racial disparity in health care in access to medical services and treatment,” said NNU Executive Director Bonnie Castillo, RN.

“More reporting of who are the hardest hit communities is essential," Castillo said. “We must rapidly expand testing and treatment, including elimination of all out-of-pocket costs, and prioritize placement of full healthcare services for those in African American, Latino and Native American communities who are bearing an unequal burden and suffering in this national emergency.”

Among the reports to date:

Illinois –  African Americans account for 68 percent of Chicago’s COVID-19 deaths, and more than half of the confirmed cases, though comprising only 30 percent of the city population, according to the Chicago Department of Public Health. Other reporting has put the Chicago African American death and infection rate at 72 percent. For Illinois overall, African Americans are less than 15 percent of the state population, but 40 percent of the disease deaths.

Wisconsin – African Americans make up nearly half of the infection rate and 80 percent of the COVID-19 deaths, ProPublica reported, though the state has not yet released its data. In Milwaukee county, African Americans comprise 73 percent of the deaths (three times their percentage of the population,) and the state’s decision to go ahead with its primary Tuesday, with photos of long lines in Milwaukee where 27 percent of the population is black, has increased alarm.

Michigan – African Americans comprise 40 percent of the state’s deaths, according to state data, despite making up just 14 percent of the state’s population. Predominantly African-American Detroit has been especially affected, accounting for more than 25 percent of the deaths.

California – In partial data just released Tuesday, Los Angeles County health officials reported that African Americans account for 57 percent of the county’s COVID-19 deaths despite being just 9 percent of the county’s population.

Louisiana – African Americans account for 70 percent of the deaths (more than double their percentage of the state population,) according to Louisiana’s Department of Health. New Orleans is a major hot spot of those deaths.

Washington D.C. – African Americans account for nearly 60 percent of the deaths in a city where they are 46 percent of the population, the Washington Post reported.

North Carolina – African Americans, with 21 percent of the population comprising 38 percent of the deaths.  

New Mexico – Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham told President Trump this week about "incredible spikes" in COVID-19 cases among Navajo nation residents warning that the virus could "wipe out" some tribal nations, said a news report. “We're seeing a much higher hospital rate, a much younger hospital rate, a much quicker go-right-to-the-vent rate for this population. And we're seeing doubling in every day-and-a-half," she said.

Disproportionate rates of COVID-19 cases among African Americans have also been cited in Mississippi and rural counties in Georgia. 

Many states and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are still not reporting demographic data on the death and infection rates. 

Castillo said the lack of reporting from other states, such as Texas, may reveal similarly high rates that many believe are occurring among Latinos and other vulnerable populations that also have historic rates of racial health disparities.

Multiple factors likely contribute to the widespread racial disparities, said Castillo. Those include higher levels of lack of insurance, fewer healthcare services and other resources, as well as higher levels of preexisting health conditions, which are major risk factors for COVID-19 deaths.  African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans are disproportionately affected by all those variables. The Louisiana state data, for example, reported 66 percent of those who died had hypertension.

Additionally, due to discriminatory economic factors, African Americans and Latinos are disproportionately concentrated among people who are still working in “essential” services and are less likely to have had access to the limited supply of testing, including low-wage grocery stores and restaurants, public transit, and many lower wage healthcare workers. It has been reported, for example, that in Philadelphia, higher income residents have been tested for the virus by as much as 600 percent more than lower income residents.

To make matters worse, those in the hardest hit communities are statistically less likely to wear face masks in public for their own protection due to societal racism and fear of being racially profiled by police, which increases their risk of infection.

“This pandemic brings into sharp focus the long, appalling history of racism in our healthcare system, and the need for fundamental overhaul with Medicare for All that would address, finally, the widespread disparity in access to care and ensure that medical care will no longer be based on ability to pay, race, ethnicity, prior health condition, or immigration status,” Castillo said.

“As a nation, we cannot be silent, and we must act,” Castillo said.