Blacks now make up nearly half of COVID-19 deaths in Illinois
By Erick Johnson
Blacks now make up almost half of COVID-19 deaths in Illinois as the number of Black cases has quadrupled from last week, according to the latest data from the Illinois Department of Public Health.
Of 794 people in Illinois who have died from COVID-19, 340 or 43 percent were Black.
The number of Blacks who are sick from the virus has quadrupled by 212.11 percent, to 5,693 cases from 1,824 in the previous week.
The number may be much higher as only 18.55 percent of the 105,768 tested for the virus were Black according to state data.
The governor’s office on Friday, April 10 released its first breakdown of testing demographic data, gathered from a survey conducted when a person is tested, but demographic data was voluntarily left blank by 61,737 people.
“COVID-19 is putting these long-lasting inequities on display,” said Congresswoman Robin Kelly, a Democrat who represents Illinois’ 2nd Congressional District in the south suburbs of Chicago and serves as the Congressional Black Caucus Health Braintrust chair. “The adage is true – when they get a cold, we get pneumonia.”
IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said a number of factors – such as preexisting conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes, which are more prevalent in Black communities – are contributing to the disproportionate impact of COVID-19, making the “horrific” statistics “not totally unexpected.”
Ezike and various leaders also said Blacks live in more crowded, multigenerational homes. She said many still must work in public-facing positions because they are essential, yet low-wage workers who cannot afford to take time off.
“We believe that these disparities, or these differences, are the result of injustices, things like redlining (excluding certain neighborhoods from access to financial services), economic disinvestment, less access to health care or health insurance, food insecurity, the list goes on,” Dr. Kiran Joshi, co-director of the Cook County Department of Public Health, said in the virtual town hall conference.
Statewide, leaders in Black communities are focusing on local community outreach with trusted organizations, a call for greater testing and data collection, and a focus on promoting available state and local resources.
Some Black leaders downstate are taking a proactive approach in warning their communities that the spread is believed to be wider than what has been confirmed through testing.
Sangamon County had 42 confirmed cases and two deaths as of Friday. For Doris Turner, an alderman in the county seat and state capital of Springfield, that meant recording a video on social media with her great-granddaughter and other family and community members, including a local high school basketball player.
“I think one of the reasons why it’s been impactful is because it is very simple, but it’s also coming from people who the average person can identify with and have contact with and it’s delivered in a manner that people can understand,” she said. “And also it’s being played in venues that people have access to.”
While the constant flow of information from state and public health leaders is important, Turner said, outreach from community and religious leaders can have a greater impact in Black communities.
“In the African-American community, there is just a historical mistrust and fear of those medical and governmental systems,” she said. “So you want to get the information out there that, you know, it is a medical crisis, but then we have to break that down into why it’s important.”
In the tri-county region of Peoria, Tazewell and Woodford counties, there have been 45 confirmed cases and three confirmed deaths as of Friday.
The Reverend Marvin Hightower, president of the Peoria chapter of the NAACP, said local messaging seems to be working, but as the weather warms it will become more important.
Hightower stressed hyperlocal outreach as well, including social networking, Zoom meetings and, much like in Chicago, “working through the various networks that we all have to get the word out.” He said area Democratic state Representative Jehan Gordon-Booth has been vital in the effort.
“It’s a conversation with Black elected leaders, as well as the community members that have been discussing and talking about how important it is for our community to take this virus serious,” he said.
In the jurisdiction of the East Side Health District, which provides health and wellness services to four predominantly Black townships in the Metro East area, including East St. Louis, Canteen, Centreville and Stites townships, there were 34 confirmed cases and six pending tests as of Thursday. The district has recorded three deaths, all African-Americans. Other demographic data in the St. Clair County area were incomplete.
Linda Davis Joiner, a spokeswoman and program director for the district, told the Belleville News-Democrat now is the time to collect more data on COVID-19’s impact to better inform public health initiatives beyond the virus’ spread.
“Hopefully we can do something about it by tracking the statistics. It’s just too disproportionate. We’ve got to figure something out here,” she said. “We can maybe start with some intentionality with this virus since we’re tracking everything else associated with it.”
But experts and leaders agree that a national shortage in testing and a lack of uniform reporting of racial data on a broad level make this effort difficult.
U.S. Representative Kelly and other congressional leaders have called on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “demanding national demographic data for diagnostic testing because the anecdotal evidence has been deeply troubling.” Thus far, however, HHS has not released such data.
“The one thing that we, as well as pretty much everybody else is concerned about, is making sure more tests are available for our area,” Hightower said of the Peoria area, where testing has reached into only the hundreds.
In an appearance with Black leaders during his daily briefing April 10, Governor Pritzker echoed the comments on racial disparities and announced the expansion of testing and new alternate housing options for COVID-positive persons who need to isolate.
The governor said a partnership with Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and four federally qualified health centers on Chicago’s south and west sides will “expand testing in these communities over the next several days to an additional 400 tests per day.”
Three locations in the Metro East region will offer up to 470 swabs per day starting early next week, Pritzker said, and those will be sent to Anderson Hospital in Madison County for testing.
He also announced a state-run south suburban drive-thru testing center will open early next week in the Markham-Harvey area, and it will run “hundreds of tests per day.”
“We must increase testing everywhere,” Pritzker said. “It isn’t just in Chicago, just in Cook County or just in the Black community – everywhere in the state. In fact that is going to be the key for us, getting out of this crisis.”
Jerry Nowicki from the Capitol News Illinois and Kelsey Landis of the Belleville News-Democrat contributed to this report.