Myths persist in racial disparity of COVID-19 deaths, speaker says

Chart of black deaths from COVID-19 compared to state populations


The evidence is pretty clear that African-American communities have been disproportionally affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, but the reasons for that are a little murkier.

Thomas LaVeist, dean and chair of Health Equity at the Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, spoke on “Lessons from New Orleans: Race, Health and COVID-19” on May 6 in the first CRSPCast from Pitt’s Center for Race and Social Problems.

James Huguley, interim director of the center, said there will probably be three more CRSPCast’s focused on the pandemic this summer. At noon March 20, Richard Lee, professor and associate chair of counseling psychology at the University of Minnesota, will discuss “Xenophobia and COVID-19: Strategies to Support Asian Communities.” Register here.

LaVeist, who has been appointed by the governor of Louisiana to head the state’s pandemic task force, said statistics bear out the perception that proportionally more African Americans are dying of the virus as compared to their numbers in most areas of the U.S.

For instance, in Louisiana, 60 percent of those who have died are African American, while they only make up 32 percent of the population. In California, blacks make up 7 percent of the deaths and only 2 percent of the population; and in Michigan, blacks are 40 percent of the deaths and 14 percent of the population.

In a study of 24 states, the ratio of deaths from COVID-19 in the black community vs. the number of African Americans in the states was 1.54. In Wisconsin, that number was 4.1. But the higher ratio wasn’t true in all states, LaVeist said, which shows there isn’t a genetic reason for the disparity.

The prevailing narrative about the cause of this disparity cites several reasons, LaVeist said, such as more chronic diseases like asthma, hypertension and obesity, and risky health behaviors, like smoking, drinking and lack of exercise, in the black community. But LaVeist said whites in the South are just as likely to have the same diseases and same unhealthy behaviors.

LaVeist said African Americans also have a justified skepticism about messages from the government and that has been exacerbated by some mixed messages that everyone has received about the coronavirus. LaVeist said the black community needs to get messages about health issues from a trusted source.

Tulane has set up a website, The Skin You’re In (, to try to provide relevant health information to the black community. For COVID-19, the site has started a social marketing campaign to dispel myths and raise awareness in the community about staying safe and healthy throughout the pandemic.

There are other reasons for the disproportionate numbers that haven’t gotten as much attention, he said.

Blacks have a higher likelihood of working in jobs that are on the front lines, such as store clerks, Uber drivers and more, LaVeist said.

Several government policies, particularly in Southern states, have impacted many people of color. Most are right to work states, which makes unionizing difficult. All but Louisiana and Kentucky chose not to expand Medicaid. That means there are more people who are uninsured and those people will often delay getting health care. Those states also have lower minimum wages, which causes more people to live in poverty.

He cited one policy change in New Orleans that impacted how many people were getting tested for COVID-19. Originally, testing was set up at drive-through sites, but they found that many people in the eastern part of the city, who is predominantly black and low-income, didn’t have cars to go to these testing sites. Health officials closed the drive-up facilities and instead set up mobile testing, which was able to cover a broader swath of people.

What he fears now is that with states adopting different policies about reopening businesses at different times, “We’re headed for a macabre game of whack-a-mole,” where the disease keeps popping up.

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at or 412-648-4294.


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