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R.I. Department of Health data shows people of color are overrepresented in positive test cases for COVID-19

On average, people of color face more difficulty social distancing, greater economic burdens from virus

Data released by the Rhode Island Department of Health revealed that, of the 59 percent of positive test cases where race was reported, Hispanic or Latinx residents comprise 44 percent of positive COVID-19 coronavirus test cases in the state and non-Hispanic Black or African American residents comprise 13 percent. These residents are also disproportionately represented in COVID-19-related hospitalizations, though they make up only 15 percent and 6 percent of the population of Rhode Island respectively.

For many Providence residents like Terri Wright, a Black member of the Tenants and Homeowners Association, these numbers are not just statistics: They are a reality. 

“My family and I currently live our lives from a fifth floor apartment window,” Wright said. In Providence, 45.8 percent of the population is non-white, compared to 16.1 percent for all of Rhode Island, according to 2010 Census data. Wright said that Governor Gina Raimondo’s social distancing recommendations are nearly impossible to follow in the city.

In the suburbs, social distancing is a different story, according to retired transit specialist Jonathan Klein. Like 90 percent of his town, Klein is white. “We always travel in our automobiles; we often live on fenced-in suburban lots; we rarely congregate outside of our smallish families except when our children attend their public schools, we attend our huge churches, or we dine out,” he wrote in an email to The Herald. With regulations in place, schools and churches are now virtual, and dining out has transitioned to contactless pick-up, he added in a follow-up email.

But Wright, a mother of five, said that staying inside takes a toll on four of her kids. 

Her fifth child, considered an essential worker, doesn’t stay home. “She does 15-hour shifts,” Wright said. “It’s either here or work. It’s tough but she’s doing it.”

People of color are more likely to have low-wage service jobs that are deemed essential, such as “driving buses, working in hospitals and working in grocery stores,” according to Ira Wilson, chair of health services, policy and practice at the School of Public Health. These jobs are much more likely to cause exposure to COVID-19, he added. Data from The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that 29.9 percent of white workers and 37 percent of Asian workers have the ability to work from home in the United States. Only 19.7 percent of Black or African American workers and 16.2 percent of Hispanic or Latinx workers have that option. 

Additionally, Wilson said essential workers of color are less likely to be able to afford to stay home from work. In the United States, the median value of wealth is over eight times lower for both Hispanic or Latinx individuals and non-Hispanic Black or African Americans, according to the Tax Policy Center. Without savings, Wilson said that taking even a month off from work is often “just not a possibility.”

Wilson said there is also a “gross insufficiency of personal protective equipment” for essential workers that would help prevent infection from spreading. 

Wright agreed. “There are no facemasks, no supplies for the communities hardest hit,” she said. She struggles to find the disinfectant she needs to wipe down doors after her daughter comes home from work, and said that stores have “no hand sanitizer, no disinfectant and no rubbing alcohol to make your own hand sanitizer.”

Marcela Betancur, director of the Latino Policy Institute, is concerned about the hidden effects of the pandemic on the undocumented community. Since these individuals are not eligible for government stimulus checks or unemployment benefits, she believes they are particularly vulnerable to a loss of income. 

In addition, Betancur said that many undocumented individuals do not have access to healthcare and may hesitate to go to hospitals due to fear of deportation. She added that RIDOH is not collecting the legal status of individuals when recording positive coronavirus tests, hospitalizations and fatalities — making it more difficult to see any underlying trends. 

In response, Betancur said that The Latino Policy Institute has been working with the Immigration Coalition of Rhode Island to notify undocumented individuals that they can access free testing and treatment. They have also been distributing “resources and information for our immigrant community and our communities of color, so they know what are they eligible to actually receive and how (to) do it.” 

At the state level, Gov. Raimondo has created an advisory group to discuss locations for additional testing sites and ways to increase communication between RIDOH and vulnerable communities, as well as other “critical questions,” according to RIDOH Spokesperson Joseph Wendelken. He added that the state has created testing sites that can be accessed without cars or other forms of transportation.

Wendelken also noted that the Governor has established a coronavirus response team dedicated to health equity. This team has been working with Health Equity Zones and the Commission for Health Advocacy and Equity to adjust contact tracing methods “to make sure that our language capacities meet the needs of Rhode Island.” One in five Rhode Island residents speak a language other than English at home, according to the Rhode Island State Data Center.

Despite significant overrepresentation of people of color in positive test cases and hospitalizations, data from RIDOH suggests that they are not overrepresented in COVID-19 fatalities, with fatalities affecting non-Hispanic white and non-Hispanic Black or African American Rhode Islanders at slightly higher rates relative to their population size.

Wilson said that the likely reason for such a high mortality rate for non-Hispanic white Rhode Islanders could be their much higher average age of those affected. Data from RIDOH suggests that 44 percent of non-Hispanic white Rhode Islanders with positive tests are over the age of 60, compared with 18 percent of non-Hispanic Black or African Americans and 12 percent of Hispanic or Latinx residents. Since COVID-19 is more likely to be fatal in older individuals, age differences can drastically affect mortality rates. 

Without accounting for age, Wilson suggested the risk of hospitalization and death could be higher for people of color because of the higher prevalence of pre-existing conditions such as obesity and a history of smoking, which are both partially caused by stressors that minorities are more likely to face, he noted. These stressors include physical danger, air and noise pollution, lower-quality schools, limited access to grocery stores and less money in savings, Wilson added, which have “very serious physiological consequences.”

In an email to The Herald, Professor of Environment and Sociology at the University Timmons Roberts warned that COVID-19 could still “leave lasting health impacts” for the many people of color who recover. He said that the science remains unclear as to whether young people who get the disease will suffer from long-term health effects.

In addition to health consequences, Wilson said the long-term economic effects of the pandemic for people of color will be “utterly devastating.” Because the federal government is already at a deficit and states cannot legally go into debt, “the downstream consequences of this” will likely lead to “cutting back entitlements and the cutting back a lot of public services, from food to housing to education.” 

“The people that have no resources are going to suffer,” Wilson said. “So all of the preconditions that caused underrepresented minorities, Black, Hispanic and many others to experience the adverse effects of COVID-19 disproportionately are just going to be worsened.”

At the Tenants and Homeowners Association, Wright is already anticipating an uptick in calls as tenants struggle to pay their monthly rent. 

Now, “the injustice that we already knew about is being televised,” she said. But Wright believes “it shouldn't take a national emergency” for health disparities to make headlines. “We want the same health as someone else who doesn't live in the inner city.” 

“I'm looking forward to a new America,” Wright added.



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