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Mayo Doctor Cites ‘Structural Racism’ For High COVID-19 Numbers Among Minorities

In Duval County, 32.8% of confirmed COVID-19 cases are from Black people, as opposed to 28.1% of them being white.
In Duval County, 32.8% of confirmed COVID-19 cases are from Black people, as opposed to 28.1% of them being white.

African Americans are 2.4 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than white people, while Hispanic, Latinx, and indigenous groups are 1.5 more likely to die, according to the Mayo Clinic’s Dr. Mark Wieland.

The higher death rates stem from many factors, including higher rates of chronic illnesses that make COVID-19 even more deadly. 

Wieland also points to a lower average socioeconomic status among minority populations.

“Communities with higher racial and ethnic minority populations have higher housing density and more housing insecurity,” Wieland said. “This makes social distancing harder. There's less access to healthy foods, which makes chronic disease management more difficult. Racial ethnic minorities are less likely to have the privilege of working from home. They're less likely to have paid sick leave, [and] they're more likely to be essential workers during the pandemic. They're more likely to use public transportation or to carpool.” 

Wieland said all of these factors come from a “foundation of structural racism.”

“The COVID crisis provides an opportunity to collectively act on the root causes of these fundamental inequities that have been demonstrated by the pandemic,” Wieland said. 

In Duval County, 32.8% of confirmed COVID-19 cases are from Black people, as opposed to 28.1% of them being white. But the population of the county is 59.7% white, and 31% Black, according to census data.

Eight-point-three percent of the cases identified are from Duval County’s Hispanic population, while other 11.9% identify as “other.” Another 27% are unknown. 

During the beginning months of the pandemic, Wieland said most of the questions he got from minority populations were about how the disease is contracted and transmitted, and how to avoid contraction.

But into the summer months, the direction of the questions shifted.

“For the COVID-positive households, of course, it's the economics of quarantine and unpaid leave, and pressure to come back to work at certain times, and what to do when you live in a high-density housing unit with COVID-positive family members or acquaintances,” Wieland said.

For minorities not exposed to COVID-19, it was more about how to find work, food and housing. 

Short-term solutions would include more testing of underserved communities and keeping accurate data of each COVID-19 patient’s race, ethnicity and socio-economic position, according to Wieland. 

In the long-term, he said equitable vaccine rollouts, a dedication to addressing the social determinants of health, and better community outreach programs into minority populations are needed.

Although Wieland said there are researchers working to mitigate the inequities, he’s concerned that the divide will continue to grow. “It's such a fast moving ship, and it's just... it's such a great scale. I worry that it's not enough.” 

In Jacksonville, one of the programs the Mayo Clinic has created to help minority populations is JaxSaludable

The program has been around since 2014, and is meant to give out important health information in Spanish to the growing Hispanic population in Duval County. 

Although it’s been around for a while, the program’s Facebook page and website just launched this year to bridge the information gap for Spanish speakers.

“Oftentimes you click on a page, and it might take you from a Spanish page to a page that was in English, or it might create a little circular event where you would be sent back to the previous page that you were on previously,” said Dr. Richard White, one of the leaders of JaxSaludable. “It wasn't really easy to navigate, and we realized that sort of quickly during the pandemic.”

White said the program collaborates with Hispanic leaders in the Jacksonville community to disseminate information on health and community events.

In July, JaxSaludable held its first virtual health conference, which White said was attended by nearly 500 Spanish speakers in the area. 

“We were able to really broaden our reach, I think even more so than what we would have been able to do if we had just had the in-person meeting,” White said. “So ironically, because of COVID-19, I think that we were able to have even a greater impact on the Hispanic community than we otherwise would have.”

According to the latest census data, 9.6% of the Jacksonville population identifies as Hispanic or Latinx.

White said JaxSaludable will be using extra money it received to research mental health challenges among Jacksonville’s Hispanic population during the COVID-19 pandemic, and how to improve access to mental health care. 

Sky Lebron can be reached at slebron@wjct.org, 904-358-6319 or on Twitter at @SkylerLebron.

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