COVID-19 hospitalizations are hitting record highs. Black Ohioans are carrying the heavy load

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Though Black Ohioans comprise 14% of the state’s population, they make up 27% of the COVID-19 hospitalization load, state data shows.

The community is similarly, though less drastically, overrepresented in Ohio’s coronavirus case load (18%) and death count (17%).

Shawnita Sealy-Jefferson, a social epidemiologist at Ohio State University, is hardly surprised.

“The root cause of racial inequities in health is racism, especially when you compare Black to white populations,” she said. “It’s not shocking to me that we’re overrepresented in covid hospitalizations, because we’re overrepresented in nearly every health category.”

More Ohioans are in the hospital Wednesday with COVID-19 than at any point during the pandemic, according to state data analyzed by the COVID Tracking Project.

Nationally, the health and economic burdens of the pandemic have fallen the hardest on minority groups. The trend is clearest in Ohio among its Black population.

“It’s shocking to people, but this is not new,” Sealy-Jefferson said. “COVID is exacerbating all the issues we’ve been seeing as long as we’ve had data.”

Researchers at OSU fielded testimony from around the state to shine a light on different needs from different communities responding to the pandemic.

They found Black Ohioans live shorter lives; suffer from more chronic diseases, which increase the risk of COVID-19 complications; and experience higher infant mortality rates than white Ohioans.

Coupling this with the community’s overrepresentation in the essential workforce and its distrust of the medical community can help understand the coronavirus disparities, the researchers found.

Around Columbus, city Health Commissioner Dr. Mysheika Roberts said Black people disproportionately work as “essential workers” — low wage jobs that continued through the lockdowns.

“When everyone in March was told to work at home and shelter in place, if you were a frontline employee working in the food industry or in the transportation industry, you didn’t have an option to work from home,” she said.

“People who have white collar jobs didn’t have that experience. They were able to remote in, from the comfort of their own home.”

Roberts, who is Black, said in Franklin County, the Black community exhibits higher rates of underlying conditions like obesity, diabetes, heart disease, lung disease, asthma, COPD, smoking and others — many of which are risk factors for people with COVID-19.

There are short-term solutions she said, like training care providers to practice “cultural competency” and understand worldviews of different communities when considering COVID-19 treatment or prevention. But the reality, she said, is there are bigger issues at play.

“It’s racism, it’s discrimination, it’s lack of fair housing and appropriate housing, it’s lack of access to quality education, to jobs,” she said.

Ohio prisons, disproportionately populated by Black men, have also hosted some of the largest outbreaks in the nation. More than 6,700 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19, and 104 inmates have died from the disease.

In April, Gov. Mike DeWine created a “Minority Health Strike Force” to respond to racial inequities seen in the pandemic. Ohio House Democratic Minority Leader Emilia Sykes — a black lawmaker with a Master’s in public health who sits on the strike force — said it hasn’t met since August 19.

She criticized DeWine, characterizing him as idly watching while Republicans in the Statehouse have tried to undercut his administration’s powers to respond to health emergencies. She said it has been “radio silence” from the strike force.

“Every time we see one of these stats, it’s a view of how the people in power view the death and suffering of Black people,” she said. “And it’s a shoulder shrug.”

Dan Tierney, a DeWine spokesman, said the Strike Force was not intended to meet regularly after August.

“After issuing its final report, the Administration has been actively working to implement the recommendations, and that work continues,” he said.

New research from the CDC crystalizes the problem at a national scale.

In a report Tuesday, researchers analyzed medical records from 4,000 patients at VA hospitals. They found the risk for respiratory, neurologic, and renal complications, and sepsis, was higher among Black and Hispanic patients than white patients, even after adjusting for age and underlying conditions.

“The disparities in acute complications among racial and ethnic minority groups could not solely be accounted for by differences in underlying medical conditions or age and might be affected by social, environmental, economic, and structural inequities,” they wrote. “Elucidation of the reasons for these disparities is urgently needed to advance health equity for all persons.”

Another report, released Tuesday, examined “excess deaths” — the amount of deaths observed beyond what would be expected in a given year.

The CDC calculated 299,000 excess deaths, despite the pandemic’s known death toll of 216,000 at the time. This suggests some combination of an underestimation in the COVID-19 death count, and increases in mortality from downstream effects of the pandemic like increased suicide and overdose rates.

While more excess deaths have occurred among older age groups, adults aged 25 to 44 experienced the largest average percentage increase in the number of deaths from all causes between January and Oct. 3.

Broken down by race and ethnicity, the smallest average percentage increase in numbers of death compared to previous years occurred among white people (12%). The largest came among Hispanics (54%) and less severe increases (29%-37%) among American Indians, Black and Asian groups.

“The disproportionate deaths and burden from covid is on Black and Brown communities, and everyone can see that now,” Sealy-Jefferson said.

This article was corrected with the date of the Strike Force’s creation. 

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