Emerging data show COVID-19 disproportionately impacts communities of color


An abundance of national historical data reminds us that in public health, when America catches a cold, people of color catch pneumonia.

As coronavirus (COVID-19) rips through our communities, it exposes social injustice and divisions that determine whether people have necessary resources to be healthy. 

As such, we are paying acute attention to nascent local data and information concerning the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on specific geographies that are predominantly communities of color. 

Local and national emerging data indicate that people of color are experiencing COVID-19 infection and death rates that are higher than other groups in the same cities. 

Based on the limited race and ethnicity data that is available, projections are, at best, probabilistic. Nationally, blacks are not only more likely to be at higher risk for COVID-19 severity or mortality, but also have lower access to testing. 

In our region, what we know today is that black and Latinx residents compose 55 percent of the confirmed cases in Kansas City, Missouri, but represent 39 percent of the city. In Johnson County, preliminary data suggest that 11 percent of confirmed cases are black residents, while black residents compose only 4 percent of the county. In Wyandotte County, 25 of the 47 deaths have been black residents.

The available data on Hispanic populations in Wyandotte County differs. While 28 percent of the county’s population is Hispanic, only 13 percent of positive cases are among Hispanic community members. The Unified Government Public Health Department suspects that this does not reflect a lower proportion of COVID-19 illness, but rather a lower proportion of Hispanic residents being tested for COVID-19.

As a native of Kansas City’s Third District – the district most affected in Kansas City, Missouri – this data is disheartening but sadly unsurprising. The same systemic and structural inequities of power, money, and resources that disproportionately affect the daily lives of people of color and people living in poverty are also playing a role in their overrepresentation in confirmed cases in this pandemic. 

These disparities are linked to underlying socioeconomic and health conditions that are more prevalent in communities of color. Much of the difference stems from pre-existing inequalities in income, access to health care, and occupational segregation. A recent National Bureau of Labor Statistics report found that only 13 percent of Hispanic and Latinx employees and 18 percent of black employees were likely to work at home, as compared to 26 percent of white employees and 32 percent of Asian employees. These data reveal that social distancing is unattainable for many black and brown people who compose the essential services workforce.

We must ensure COVID-19 mitigation and economic recovery strategies are grounded in equity. We applaud efforts by Kansas and Missouri to publish available data about confirmed COVID-19 cases by race and ethnicity. Yet those reports illuminate important gaps: in Missouri, 30 percent of COVID-19 cases are of unknown race and 37 percent are of unknown ethnicity. In Kansas, 23 percent of cases are of unknown race and 27 percent of cases are of unknown ethnicity.

We implore local health institutions — including public and private laboratories in Kansas and Missouri — to standardize, collect, and make public disaggregated race and ethnicity data. Through these insights, we can fortify our communities and do more than simply recover. We can use the urgency of the pandemic to build more equitable systems that increase long-term equity and resiliency.

As we move forward and create a new normal, Health Forward is committed to catalyzing and prioritizing multi-level solutions that address the link between health, race, and ethnicity and socioeconomic contributors like poverty.

We are proud to be part of this region. We are seeing organizations, corporations, funders, and grassroots organizations unite in unique ways. We have witnessed the resilience in our communities, and we know when the pandemic ends, we will rise stronger. Though we must spend this time physically apart, there’s no doubt we are in this together.