More than 80 percent of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Georgia were African American, study finds

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From The Washington Post by Rachel Weiner

As Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) moves to reopen more businesses, a new study underscores the disproportionate toll the virus has taken on the state’s African American population.

Surveying eight Georgia ­hospitals, researchers found that in a sample of 305 covid-19 patients, 247 were black — more than 80 percent and more than they expected.

“It is important to continue ongoing efforts to understand the reasons for these racial disparities, including the role of socioeconomic and occupational factors in transmission,” the researchers wrote. “Public officials should consider racial differences among patients affected by COVID-19 when planning prevention activities.”

While limited by time and geography, the results of the study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released Wednesday echo research showing black Americans are more likely to be infected and die of covid-19, the disease the novel coronavirus causes.

Kemp pushed forward in recent days with a reopening of businesses across the state, a decision made without input from state and local health officials. Many black leaders have criticized that decision, saying their communities will suffer the most if covid-19 cases spike and the virus overwhelms state resources.

“We call upon our local political leaders to continue to work on behalf of all Georgia citizens, and especially its most vulnerable citizens who need and deserve reparative outreach and service,” the state’s NAACP said.

About 40 percent of the 305 patients in the study had diabetes, and a quarter had cardiovascular disease. Previous research by the CDC, which is headquartered in Atlanta, has shown that people who have chronic medical conditions face an increased chance of being hospitalized with covid-19 and put into intensive care. Diabetes is twice as common among black Georgia residents as whites, and black Georgians are more likely than whites to die of heart disease.

But a quarter of the patients included in the study had no preexisting conditions, and 5 percent of those patients died, a reminder the virus can cause significant illness and death for previously healthy patients.

The median age of patients was 60. Most had private insurance or Medicare; 11 percent were on Medicaid; 15 percent were uninsured. All the Medicaid patients in the study were black, but the black patients were no more likely than others to be uninsured.

Statewide, African Americans are less likely to be insured, according to Benjamin Lopman, a professor of epidemiology at Emory University. They’re also more likely to work in industries with a greater risk of exposure such as transportation, nursing homes and animal slaughter plants, Lopman said.

The black patients studied were not more likely than those of other races to require treatment with ventilators or to die while hospitalized. The researchers did not follow the patients after discharge or after the study ended, when 8 percent remained in the hospital. During the month-long study, 48 patients died.

State numbers indicate African Americans, about 30 percent of Georgia’s population, make up about 36 percent of confirmed covid-19 patients; race was unknown or missing in 28 percent of reported cases. The state stopped reporting covid-19 deaths by race this week, although a spokeswoman for the state Health Department said the agency hopes to release those numbers again in the next few days. As of last week, African Americans made up more than 50 percent of patients who have died.

Georgia has moved more quickly than any other state in reopening businesses after a stay-at-home order. Bowling alleys, tattoo parlors, gyms and salons were allowed to open last week, followed by movie theaters and restaurants Monday. Vacation rentals can open Friday.

A funeral in February in a small and largely black southwest Georgia community is believed to have sparked an outbreak that took 117 lives in Dougherty County, more than anywhere else in the state.

Seven of the hospitals that participated in the study are in the Atlanta area; one is in southern Georgia.

One of the study researchers is a doctor from the only hospital in Dougherty County, which is also the only hospital in southwest Georgia equipped to handle covid-19 patients. In contrast with other states, Georgia has seen a higher case death rate in rural areas than urban centers. All five counties with the highest number of cases per capita are in southwest Georgia, and all are predominantly black.

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