Special Section: A year of Covid-19 » OUR LOST YEAR

Social inequities exacerbate COVID-19 pandemic's racial gaps

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A group steps off a shuttle bus to Mt. Olivet Baptist Church in Corn Hill to receive a COVID-19 vaccination. The pop-up vaccination clinic there was part of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plan for “fairness and equity” in vaccine distribution. The church’s congregation is predominantly black. - PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • A group steps off a shuttle bus to Mt. Olivet Baptist Church in Corn Hill to receive a COVID-19 vaccination. The pop-up vaccination clinic there was part of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plan for “fairness and equity” in vaccine distribution. The church’s congregation is predominantly black.
Racial disparities in health were already a problem before COVID-19 blazed its way through communities across the country. But by grafting itself on the timeworn patterns of inequity, COVID-19 propelled them into the public consciousness like they had never been before.

In Monroe County, the statistics have been alarming. Black and Latino patients have been diagnosed at a rate close to double that of white patients, according to a November analysis by the Center for Community Health & Prevention at the University of Rochester Medical Center. Black patients are hospitalized with COVID-19 at roughly four times the rate of white patients and Latinos at three times the rate. Both groups have died from illness at twice the rate of whites.

Nationally, the virus claimed so many lives in the first half of 2020 that it skewed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention life expectancy data. In a February report, CDC researchers found that life expectancy dropped by about one year for all Americans, falling to 77.8 years from 78.8. But it fell by two years for the Latino population, to 79.9 from 81.8, and almost three years for the Black population, to 72 from 74.7.

But Blacks and Latinos have been disproportionately affected by the virus for the same reason they have higher rates of emergency room visits for asthma, have higher rates of uncontrolled diabetes and hypertension, and account for a higher proportion of Monroe County’s lead poisoning cases, explained Wade Norwood, CEO of the regional health research and planning organization Common Ground Health.

Structural racism and poverty are the root of each health disparity, he said.

“Since a crisis is a terrible thing to waste, since we have a light being shown on it, it’s the opportunity for us to think differently about how it is we consider economic status as being a determinant of health outcomes,” Norwood said.



In the Rochester region, Blacks and Latinos are three times as likely as whites to live in poverty, according to a 2019 report from Common Ground Health. They’re also more likely to live in neighborhoods with high concentrations of poverty and a lack of quality housing, where leaky roofs lead to mold and mildew that exacerbates asthma and where lead paint is unabated.

Blacks and Latinos in Monroe County are more likely to be essential workers in the service, hospitality, and direct-care sectors, where employees have little choice but to interact with large numbers of people, explained Norwood. These jobs also tend to be among some of the lowest paid and the workers tend to live in closer quarters, with many living in multi-generational households, Norwood added.

“These essential workers, who have not been staying at home, whose work has still entailed lots of high-contact, high-exposure potential to the virus, those folks are in the front of the line when it comes to having to be exposed,” Norwood said. “But, as Stevie Wonder said, they’re in the back of the line when it comes to getting ahead.”

Jeremy Moule is CITY's news editor. He can be reached at jmoule@rochester-citynews.com.

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