Orange County government officials requested demographic data analyzing COVID-19 patients in the county after data was released at the state and national level showing African Americans may be disproportionately affected by COVID-19.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report on April 8 that found 89.3 percent of the hospitalized patients included in the study had underlying conditions, and the most common conditions included high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Approximately 33 percent of the hospitalized patients included in the study were African American.
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“We do know that communities of color will bear a disproportionate burden of this virus in the long term,” said Kristin Prelipp, communications manager at the Orange County Health Department.
Prelipp said minorities are more likely to be employed as essential employees, which would leave them more open to exposure to coronavirus. She said these communities experience disproportionate rates of chronic disease like high blood pressure, diabetes and asthma that puts individuals at high risk of severe illness after developing COVID-19.
“We cannot refer to these high rates of chronic disease without mentioning that African American communities also typically experience poverty, food deserts, gentrification, red-lining and environmental and systemic institutional racism at higher rates as well,” Prelipp said.
Data released by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services shows African Americans make up 38 percent of both the number of cases and deaths from COVID-19 in the state. Comparatively, African Americans make up about 22 percent of the population in North Carolina, according to data from the United States Census Bureau.
Renee Price, vice-chairperson of the Orange County Board of Commissioners, said she had a conversation with Carrboro Town Council Member Barbara Foushee about how COVID-19 has affected African Americans nationwide. Price said during the conversation, they realized they did not have any information about what was happening locally in Orange County.
“After that phone call, I drafted a letter and sent it to our elected officials here in Orange County that are African American or Asian American,” Price said.
She said the other officials signed on to the letter, and she was pleased to receive a quick response from Quintana Stewart, the Orange County health director.
The Orange County Health Department released demographic information on April 13, but said 30-40 percent of confirmed cases in the county are missing demographic information, and the data should not be used at this time to make any generalizations about who may or may not have higher rates of infection.
Prelipp said testing capability has been limited, so the confirmed cases referenced in the study represent only part of all cases in the community. Thirty-seven percent of COVID-19 cases in the county were African Americans and 54 percent were white, according to the data released by the health department.
Prelipp said the total number of cases in Orange County is small compared to other counties, such as Wake or Durham. However, she said the discrepancy in the data means they cannot definitively say one racial group fares worse than the other.
Allison De Marco, advanced research scientist at Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute whose research focuses in part on poverty and racial equity, said in an email that systems in the United States have resulted in long-term inequities for populations of color.
“Orange County is just a microcosm of what we see everywhere in terms of lack of or disinvestment in communities of color, like the lack of sewer and water in the historically Black community of Rogers Road, siting of environmental hazards, like the long-time landfill in Rogers Road and the industrial land uses near the Lincoln Park neighborhood in Carrboro,” De Marco said.
De Marco said community engagement on behalf of leadership is critical and involves making sure all voices can be heard and prioritizing those closest to an issue. She said the long-term efforts needed would be to take the fight to the root causes of racial inequities.
At the local level Carrboro, Chapel Hill and the Orange County Health Department have all become members of the Government Alliance on Race and Equity. De Marco said this provides them with an organizational assessment, ongoing training and an action plan to work from.
Prelipp said the Orange County Health Department is working with several community partners to get a better sense of what is being said and done in the African American community and other communities of color related to COVID-19.
“In this time, we want to lean on those working and living in the community to help push out messages, to help share information on social media, to call up people they know, etc,” she said.
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