Health experts in the Cape Fear respond to Covid-19 disproportionately killing African Americans

Health experts in the Cape Fear respond to Covid-19 disproportionately killing African Americans

WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Early numbers from states hit hard by Covid-19 reveal an alarming trend: the virus is disproportionately killing black Americans at a high rate.

Doctors believe there are several reasons this is the case.

Statistically, African Americans are more likely to have pre-existing medical conditions, such as high blood pressure and diabetes, and less likely to have a primary care physician.

According to numbers from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, African Americans account for 3 percent of positive cases and 35 percent of deaths in North Carolina.

According to the Census Bureau, 22 percent of North Carolina residents are African-American.

Dr. Ophelia Garmon-Brown, Novant Health’s Senior Vice President and Chief Community Wellness and Health Equity Executive said many black Americans are likely to work in essential jobs, where they have a better chance of being exposed to the contagious virus.

"We are talking about people who are not able to do their job from home," she said. "We’re talking about people who have minimum-wage jobs. We will go to a restaurant to pick up our food but somebody was in that restaurant cooking the food right so they are having to be exposed in those restaurants. And how did they get to work? They went to work on transit public transit. So, when you talk about people who are already on the margins and disenfranchised and you put this situation there where they have to be out of their homes, you make it just so much more difficult for them."

She said, as a result, those who are living on the margins are especially hard hit by the virus.

"It happens in this country to be brown people who will in a crisis situation do poorly and that’s what we’re seeing with Covid-19," she said.

One death has been reported in Brunswick County but a race was not revealed.

Joseph Conway, Health Equity Manager at New Hanover Regional Medical Center says while there have been no reported deaths in New Hanover County from COVID-19, the number of positive cases does not show the same disparity of African Americans contracting COVID-19 as in other parts of the country.

Of the 53 positive cases in New Hanover County, Conway says the ratio of African Americans and Latinos is low, but he expresses caution.

"That’s only about five Hispanic or Latino people about eight African-Americans versus a population of white Americans that’s about 37 to 38 people that we're talking about," Conway says. "With small sample sizes like that, you want to be very careful about drawing any types of conclusions."

Conway says the number of cases in the Cape Fear Region compared to other parts of the state and country suggests all residents are adhering to the county and statewide restrictions, but says people of all races don’t need to let their guard down.

“It’s a small battle that we won for our region. We’ve stayed fairly flat with some little spikes there. I think we’ll have to be cautious going forward so let’s keep the momentum, he says. Let’s continue to practice our social distancing, lets continue to follow CDC guidelines--less than 10--and all of those types of things n order to make sure our region is protected ad stays safe."

While he says there’s no reason to push the panic button here, paying close attention to the guidelines and restrictions is imperative for people of color given the disproportionate numbers in other parts of the country.

​"I would say I’m very concerned about our African-American community. I will say that. I am looking to work with the leaders within the community to make sure that this message gets out. I think this message especially needs to get out to the Hispanic community. We don’t wanna miss anything just because it is a barrier of communication"

Dr. Garmon-Brown said another element to concerns about African Americans more likely to die from coronavirus is that they are less likely to be insured.

"North Carolina decided not to expand Medicaid and so we find ourselves where so many poor people and in particular people of color do not have health insurance," she explained. "So, therefore they have no connection to a primary care physician; that's one of the things that Novant Health is trying to change in the Wilmington/Brunswick area.

Novant Health opened COVID 19 screening centers in Brunswick County to help make sure anyone who has symptoms can get checked out, even if they don’t have a primary care physician.

First, patients with symptoms are asked to call the 24/7 helpline at 1-877-9 NOVANT.

For details on the screening centers click here.

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