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Wisconsin coronavirus infection, death rates point to black health disparities

Wisconsin coronavirus infection, death rates point to black health disparities

Vacant Madison COVER (copy)

The Capitol Square was unusually empty on the second day of Gov. Tony Evers’s "safer at home" order, which went into effect March 25. The city of Madison is showing signs of residents following the order.

For the first time since the novel coronavirus pandemic took hold in the state, Wisconsin’s Department of Public Health released data this week showing how the disease is affecting people by race and ethnicity. 

The department’s findings illuminate a growing body of data nationally showing that COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, is infecting and killing black people at high rates. 

On a press call Thursday, U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore said COVID-19 is “very opportunist.” 

Gwen Moore (copy) (copy)

Moore

“If you’re weak, and if you’re poor, and if you can’t afford to have your groceries delivered to you, if you can’t stock up for a month’s time and avoid the interactions, if you work in the public service sector, I think you’re at greater risk,” the Milwaukee Democrat said. “Those things seem to come together for African Americans.” 

The Wisconsin DHS data show that 27% of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 and 44% of people who have died from it are black. In Wisconsin, black people account for 6.7% of the population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.  

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In Milwaukee, the black community has suffered disproportionately from the coronavirus. The city has the state’s largest minority population. According to the Census Bureau, 38.8% of its residents are black and 18.8% are Hispanic.  

As of Thursday, 1,484 people had tested positive for COVID-19 and 65 people died from it in Milwaukee County, according to DHS. That’s more than half of the state’s total positive cases and deaths, which number 2,885 and 111, respectively.

Moore said the coronavirus data point to larger disparities within the health care system.  

“I do think that these data need to be collected because I think we’re going to learn an awful lot about housing conditions, public transportation,” Moore said. 

Medical professionals said Tuesday’s election could have made the state of the pandemic in Milwaukee worse. Attempts by Gov. Tony Evers and others to make changes beyond a short absentee extension were overturned by courts.

[Madison has 66 polling sites on Election Day, Milwaukee has five. What's the deal?]

A shortage of polling places in Milwaukee led to long lines and people gathered together for hours at a time. The city operated five of its usual 180 polling sites. 

Jeff Weber, president of the Wisconsin Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, said on the call organized by the Democratic Party of Wisconsin that Tuesday’s in-person election “will undoubtedly lead to a spike in infection rates.” 

“The damage this will cause...we are not ready for it,” Weber said. “We have bare bones staffing, insufficient infrastructure and equipment, and a lack of care for the health care workers themselves.”  

Dane County has seen the second greatest number of deaths from COVID-19 in the state, but the racial disparities are not as stark as in Milwaukee. 

In Dane County, 7.3% of COVID-19 patients have been black, according to Public Health Madison & Dane County data released April 3. 

Dane County’s population is 84.9% white and 5.4% black, according to the census data. 

Public Health Madison & Dane County reported Thursday that there have been 310 cases, slightly above what DHS reported, of COVID-19 in Dane County and 11 deaths. 

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