As COVID-19 surges, disproportionalities in infections shrink

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- State leaders have said again and again: COVID-19 did not create racial and ethnic disparities in our state, but merely shined a stark spotlight on pre-existing structural inequities.

When the pandemic first began to pick up in April and May, Black North Carolinians were disproportionately dying of COVID-19. Despite making up 22% of the population, according to Census data, Black North Carolinians accounted for 36% of COVID-19 cases and 35% of deaths by early May. While health experts couldn't point to a specific cause for this disparity, one important factor was that Black North Carolinians disproportionately suffer from the chronic conditions the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified as risk factors for severe disease from COVID-19.

By summer, nearly 50% of all COVID-19 cases were among North Carolinians who identify as Hispanic or Latino, though the Hispanic/Latino population of North Carolina is just about 10% of the state.

"Too often it is the color of someone's skin that predicts their health outcome," North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen said during a news conference Tuesday. "The pandemic didn't create the disparities, it just made them acutely visible for all to see."

However, Cohen also noted the state has made progress in reducing those disparities. As of January 15, Black and African American North Carolinians make up just 20% of cases and 26% of deaths. Hispanic and Latino North Carolinians are 23% of cases and 8% of deaths.

Julia Lucas is a nurse practitioner at Llibott Consultorios Medicos, a Spanish speaking primary care clinic. She has been testing for and treating COVID-19 throughout the pandemic, and has been part of several messaging campaigns to slow the spread within the Hispanic and Latino community.

"It's really a group effort, a team effort in health care, working on outreach opportunities, working on getting people tested, dispelling myths about the virus, helping people feel more comfortable and more confident about knowing the symptoms and when to go seek treatment," Lucas said.

One successful method, Lucas said, was partnering with Spanish radio and Facebook channels to answer questions from the Spanish-speaking community and issue advisories and tips to patients--such as when to quarantine, where to get tested, how to recognize symptoms of COVID-19, and how to take care of pre-existing conditions such as obesity and diabetes to prevent more serious illness.

And, she added that the Hispanic and Latino community has been particularly compliant with wearing masks when outside the home.

"A lot of my patients, they come to me talking about being ambassadors themselves about encouraging other people to wear masks and seeing how that's protected them and people that they love from getting the virus," Lucas said.

But, Lucas emphasized, pre-existing inequities haven't disappeared. Latino North Carolinians are still more likely to work in an industry where they can't stay home or social distance from others.

And current vaccination data shows just three percent of the 238,344 people who have received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine are Hispanic or Latino. Lucas said she and other health care workers are concerned those disparities will continue.

"Disparities in vaccination will only mean that the people who don't get it are more at risk for contracting the virus," Lucas said. "So if we're already seeing disparities in who's getting vaccinated, you can kind of have foresight into who might be affected more in the future by the pandemic."

RELATED: Initial COVID-19 vaccine data in North Carolina reveals racial disparities

She added that she's concerned about vaccine hesitancy due to medical racism, but that she and other health care professionals are working hard to answer questions and reassure their patients that the vaccine is safe and effective.

Still, the pandemic isn't over, and Lucas said the same protocols are just as important now as they were in the spring: wash your hands, avoid leaving the house if you can, and wear your mask whenever around people who live outside your household.
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