It’s impossible to tell if African Americans and other minorities in the Fredericksburg area are being diagnosed with COVID-19 at higher rates than others because the full data doesn’t exist, locally or statewide.
Racial information is missing or unknown in more than half the positive cases in the Rappahannock Area Health District, as well as for cases statewide, said RAHD spokesperson Allison Balmes John. She said racial equity remains an important concern, and the local health district would continue to explore data as it becomes available.
Gov. Ralph Northam said on Wednesday and he and state officials are looking into ways to make sure racial data is reported for confirmed cases of the illness caused by the novel coronavirus. At a press conference, he and State Health Commissioner Norm Oliver said private medical providers are not reporting the data to labs, so when the test results are passed along to the Virginia Department of Health, the data is incomplete.
The state health department planned to send letters to private medical partners, encouraging them to report data by race.
The focus comes as large cities nationwide—New York City, New Orleans, Los Angeles and others—are reporting a disproportionate number of African American deaths from the virus. The numbers in Chicago alone “take your breath away,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a press conference. Blacks make up 29 percent of the city’s population, but 71 percent of the city’s fatalities from COVID-19.
The local health district sends out daily reports to Fredericksburg and the counties of Caroline, King George, Spotsylvania and Stafford and it provides a contact in each locality with the names, addresses and phone numbers of people with confirmed cases. That’s so local first responders will know if they’re answering calls to a household of someone with COVID-19.
Local officials aren’t getting racial breakdowns, spokespeople from the area localities said on Thursday. And even if they did, they couldn’t share it because “it’s protected under federal health laws,” said Sonja Cantu, city spokeswoman.
Mary Washington Healthcare doctors said they weren’t tracking racial information and could provide no “anecdotal information” to suggest that they were treating more minorities during the pandemic, said Lisa Henry, marketing director.
Spotsylvania Regional Medical Center said it didn’t have racial breakdowns of patients.
Of the two local deaths from the virus, the first was a 63-year-old African American man who had asthma. The second patient was white, a 54-year-old with no known underlying conditions.
The area’s first confirmed case of COVID-19 also was African American. The 51-year-old had no health problems before he got sick—and ended up on a ventilator as those who cared for him wondered if he’d survive. In a strange twist of timing, he walked out of Spotsylvania Regional Medical Center the same day the two COVID-19 patients died there.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the White House coronavirus task force, said health disparities have always existed for African Americans and they are suffering disproportionately in this crisis not because they’re getting infected more often, but because their underlying conditions put them more at risk. Those issues include diabetes, hypertension, obesity and asthma.
Donna Powell, director of programs with Fredericksburg Area HIV/AIDS Support Services, offered yet another theory. She alerted the Fredericksburg City Council two years ago when AIDS was “running rampant” in the African American community as a possible side effect of the opioid crisis.
Powell believes an ongoing mistrust of the medical system—going back generations to segregation and unethical studies done on black patients—as well as lack of health insurance and access to care have contributed to increased health-related problems among African Americans.
But she’s also heard a lot of chatter in black communities from people who say it’s not a deadly virus that’s striking people, but they’re being sickened by radiation or fumes coming from cellphone towers.
“People don’t believe it’s a virus or that they need to take precautions,” she said.
Powell implored her fellow African Americans to ignore rumors that they’re not affected.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” she said. “We’re getting infected and dying at a higher rate. We need to be vigilant and open and honest. It can happen to us, it is happening to us, it will happen to us.”