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Across the St. Louis region, black residents disproportionately hit by the coronavirus

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Press conference with Mayor Lyda Krewson

File photo. Dr. Fredrick Echols (pictured) in a press conference announcing his hire to serve as director of the St. Louis Department of Health on Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019, at City Hall in downtown St. Louis. Photo by Cristina M. Fletes,

ST. LOUIS COUNTY — Across the St. Louis metro area, the new coronavirus appears to be hitting black residents disproportionately hard, health officials said Wednesday as cases of the virus continued to surge across the region.

By Wednesday evening, Missouri’s statewide confirmed cases topped 3,300, and Illinois reached 15,000 cases. At least 55 people in the St. Louis area who had COVID-19 have died.

In St. Louis, all twelve people killed by COVID-19 as of Wednesday evening were black, city Health Director Dr. Fredrick Echols said Wednesday.

Echols made the announcement in an op-ed published in the St. Louis American, a newspaper dedicated to covering the city’s black community.

“The coronavirus pandemic has brought to light what many healthcare providers in the St. Louis region already know: the communities with the highest health disparities and lack of access to health care will be hit the hardest by COVID-19,” Echols wrote.

The health director added that many of the preexisting conditions that make the coronavirus more dangerous for some people — including heart conditions and diabetes — already disproportionately affect black people.

“This is why everyone in the City of St. Louis — especially African Americans — must take precautions against spreading this disease,” he wrote.

St. Louis has not yet published a racial breakdown of all people who have tested positive for the virus, though city officials plan to release more data this week, said mayoral spokesman Jacob Long.

In St. Louis County, though, available data shows African Americans have been hit by the virus at a rate of about four times that of white county residents.

The county said it didn’t know about the race of about 40% of its positive cases, but for the rest, 55.1% were black and 36.6% were white.

That meant there were 183.5 positive cases per 100,000 black people, but just 42.9 positive cases per 100,000 white people in the county.

In St. Charles County, racial data available for 70% of the county’s cases showed that 17% were African American, while the county’s population is 5.1% black.

That data indicates the St. Louis area is in line with national trends that have shown minorities suffer much higher incidences of infection and death related to coronavirus.

Dr. Alex Garza, head of the newly formed St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force, said Wednesday that the disparities were “tracking along with what has been reported in other cities.”

In Chicago, for example, cases with racial data indicated about 72% of the city’s deaths were black people, though they make up just 30% of the population.

Garza said the issue isn’t necessarily about race, but about inequity. “We know that populations that are socioeconomically challenged that don’t have access to good health care, that don’t have access to nutritious food, are victims of many diseases including diabetes, high blood pressure … it’s an indication of social inequities that existed before this pandemic came around.”

Garza said 586 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 on Wednesday across the area, an increase of just one from the day prior. The number of people in intensive care decreased by six, to 233, and the number of people on ventilators was 186, the same as Tuesday.

But he cautioned against taking any relief from those numbers. “We know there are going to be days like that, but, make no mistake, we’re still on the steep part of the curve.”

Garza said it was not clear how many people would die across the area, but models predicted 80,000 positive cases by the end of April, and that about 1% to 2% — or 800 to 1,600 — of those would die.

Garza said it was too early to tell if efforts to “flatten the curve” were working.

“We don’t want to look at day-to-day trends,” he said. “We want to look at long-term trends. So, I think, in the next week or so, we’ll be able to say whether we’re having an impact on that curve or not.”

Meanwhile, a new coordinated effort from more than 43 St. Louis area nonprofits, social service agencies and governments was announced Wednesday to help people navigate resources and get help with needs including employment, food, housing, child care and legal aid.

The effort, called the COVID-19 Regional Response Team, will be led by Jason Purnell, associate professor in the Brown School at Washington University and Director of Health Equity Works.

“Our region’s most vulnerable populations are historically underserved and this pandemic requires us to provide care and services in ways that no individual agency can accomplish on their own,” Purnell said in a statement Wednesday. “An equitable response to this pandemic requires that we focus our attention on those at greatest risk of contracting this virus and those whose lives were lived in risk before this crisis.”

Statewide, Missouri reported 290 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 and five new deaths Wednesday. The state’s total Wednesday was 3,327 cases and 58 deaths, more than double the count of one week earlier.

In Missouri, some state counts have differed from totals provided by local health departments, typically lagging behind. But the latest numbers released by local officials in the St. Louis metro area by Wednesday evening include:

• St. Louis County: 1,280 cases, 26 deaths.

• St. Louis: 514 cases, 12 deaths.

• St. Charles County: 283 cases, 10 deaths.

• Jefferson County: 95 cases, two deaths.

• St. Clair County: 127 cases, three deaths.

• Madison County: 82 cases, two deaths.

Illinois reported 15,078 total confirmed cases Wednesday and 462 deaths, including a new death in the Metro East, a Madison County woman in her 60s who died at a hospital.

Illinois health department director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said Wednesday it appeared the rate of new cases in the state was beginning to level off.

“With guarded optimism, we are hoping we are getting to either the peak or a plateau,” Ezike said during a news conference.


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