Editor’s note: This story was produced through a partnership between the INDY and The 9th Street Journal, which is published by journalism students at Duke University’s DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy.
Black and Latinx people in Durham have tested positive for COVID-19 at rates that far outsize their populations, according to new data from the county health department.
Latinx people account for 14 percent of county residents and 34 percent of its COVID-19 cases as of May 25. Black people, who make up 37 percent of the population, account for 42 percent of confirmed cases. White people, meanwhile, total 54 percent of residents but just 26 percent of cases.
The unequal infection rate is linked to where people work or are confined, the data show. Nursing care facilities, correctional facilities, and construction sites were the most common settings linked to positive diagnoses. In Durham, Black and Latinx people make up a majority of workers and residents who have tested positive in each of those settings. Black people make up 67 percent of the cases associated with nursing care facilities and 53 percent of the cases associated with correctional facilities.
Some of Durham’s largest outbreaks have occurred in these facilities. At the Durham Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, at least 111 people were diagnosed with COVID-19, and at the Butner Federal Correctional Complex, which is partly located in Durham County, at least 424 inmates and staff have tested positive.
Latinx people make up 91 percent of the cases associated with construction work, according to the Department of Public Health. Outdoor construction has been exempted from Durham’s aggressive stay-at-home orders.
The over-representation of minorities among people diagnosed with the illness has emerged and increased since the novel coronavirus first reached the Bull City.
The fact that Durham’s racial minorities are disproportionately affected doesn’t surprise Delmonte Jefferson, executive director of NAATPN, a Durham-based organization that advocates for the health of Black people nationally.
“In Durham, just like other places across the country, and most of your service industry workers, those that are on the front line that have been deemed essential are people of color,” Jefferson says. “These are the folks that have to go into work every day. And so if they have to go into work every day, then that means they’re front-facing, and they’re exposed to this virus.”
Pilar Rocha-Goldberg, CEO and president of El Centro Hispano, sees the coronavirus exacerbating preexisting health disparities.
“We had gaps before,” Rocha-Goldberg says. “A lot of them don’t have a primary doctor to go to if they feel sick, or lack knowing how to navigate the system.”
El Centro Hispano, which supports the education, health, and economic well-being of Latinx communities in the Triangle, is sharing educational resources on COVID-19 with community members. But some people who might be sick are afraid to get treated.
“People always fear giving information because of their [immigration] status,” Rocha-Goldberg says. During this outbreak, they worry that using public services could lead to their deportation, she adds.
Reports during the early phase of the outbreak misled some people in the community into thinking they wouldn’t be affected because they are Latinx, Rocha-Goldberg says.
White people were overrepresented among positive tests in Durham at the onset of the virus—58 percent of the cases in March. As testing has become more available and the virus spread, however, white people accounted for an increasingly smaller share of cases: 27 percent in April, then 16 percent in May. Meanwhile, the rate of diagnosis among people of color skyrocketed.
In March, Latinx people accounted for 7 percent of cases, and Black people made up 25 percent. In April, Black people accounted for 57 percent of new cases. And in May, Latinx people accounted for 58 percent of new cases.
After obtaining data on COVID-19 diagnoses among racial and ethnic groups in Durham, The 9th Street Journal asked the county health department for additional data involving COVID-19 deaths and testing access as well as information about the origins of the disparity and what the county is doing to address it. The department did not respond.
According to the state Department of Health and Human Services, Black people make up 34 percent percent of reported COVID deaths across the state but only 23 percent of the state’s population. Latinx people have been slightly underrepresented in deaths statewide.
(The state’s racial and ethnic fatality data are incomplete. Racial identification is missing in 5 percent of cases, and ethnic identification is missing in 16 percent. Durham’s racial and ethnic data is similarly incomplete.)
Jefferson fears the broad impact of the coronavirus will haunt the health and economic well-being of communities of color for decades.
“We’re looking at at least 20 or 30 years before our communities can start to recover. It is going to devastate our communities,” he says.
He worries, too, that protests ignited by the police killing of George Floyd will amplify the damage COVID-19 causes in Black communities by increasing the spread of the disease.
“Yes, we’re mad. Yes, we’re hurt. Yes, we want justice,” Jefferson says. “But we really can’t be distracted. We’ve got to continue practicing social distancing.”
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