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How federal response has failed to address racial disparities in pandemic’s toll

For months, it's been clear that the pandemic is taking a disproportionate toll on people of color. Now, new data quantifies the disparities, showing that African American and Latinx people are nearly three times as likely to contract COVID-19 as white Americans and twice as likely to die from it. Amna Nawaz talks to Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo of the University of California, San Francisco.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The coronavirus is taking a disproportionate toll on people of color.

    Amna Nawaz reports that new numbers reveal the outsized impact with striking new detail

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That's right, Judy.

    The New York Times acquired demographic data from the Centers for Disease Control through a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act. The data set of about 1.5 million cases here in the U.S. shows that Latinos and African-Americans are nearly three times more likely to be infected than white Americans, and are twice as likely to die.

    For a closer look at those numbers, I am joined now by Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, where she's also the inaugural vice dean for population health and health equity.

    Dr. Bibbins-Domingo, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    And let's start with why we have this data in the first place. As we mentioned, The New York Times had to sue the government to get it, but journalists and lawmakers have been asking for this data for months. People don't understand, why is it so hard to gather and access this data?

  • Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo:

    Yes, it's really another example of what's been a very challenging federal strategy in managing this pandemic.

    It turns out that the data is collected at the state level. There's lots of variation about how it's collected, and there's lots of variation about how it's collected by the people who are doing the tests, and there is no federal mandate to report.

    That federal mandate didn't come until just a few weeks ago. And now that it's there, for the first time, we can start to see these patterns across the country. But it's come a little bit late for something that we knew was going to be important for managing the pandemic.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And we should mention, even the data they have is incomplete. Oftentimes, the race and ethnicity of the patient wasn't even reported.

    And this only goes through May, so it doesn't include the recent surge that we have been seeing. But we should point out, those disparities were evident even early in the pandemic. And back then, when we talked about it, the explanation was, well, black and brown Americans carry a higher health burden, they have more comorbidities.

    When you look at this broader data set, does that explanation still explain why we're seeing that disparity?

  • Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo:

    Well, frankly, that explanation has never been the most important part of the observation.

    There are, frankly, more people cases. More cases means more black individuals, more Latinx individuals are being exposed to the virus. They're being exposed because they are out working. They make up a disproportionate part of our service sector, our essential front-line workers, who are keeping our streets clean, who are a part of public transportation, who are doing that informal service economy to take care of those of us who are ill.

    And that is what's exposing them to the virus. And that's why the cases are high.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Doctor, what do you think now that we see most states continuing to move ahead with plans to reopen? What's going to happen with that disparity?

  • Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo:

    Well, the striking thing in The New York Times' data is that we see disparity in suburban settings, in rural settings and in cities.

    As we reopen, it means that more people are moving about. And those front-line workers, those people who are doing those jobs that are essential to our economy, are going to be more exposed.

    And I think that, in the absence of any real protection for individual workers, PPE, for example, protection for people whose wages might be the main reason that they continue to go out and work, even though they might not be feeling well, unless we have those protections in place, we're going to see a widening of these disparities. And that's what I anticipate and what we're seeing, already, frankly, in many states.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    When you look at the medical response so far, knowing these disparities exist, knowing there are certain communities, black and brown Americans being harder hit, have we been doing enough to surge resources, mobile units?

    Should we be thinking about deploying a vaccine first in these communities? How would you assess we have been doing so far?

  • Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo:

    I don't think we have been doing enough.

    And, frankly, one of the challenging things is, we see — we knew these patterns were going to exist. We already have deep, deep, pervasive disparities in this country. People who think about epidemics know that they don't distribute equally. They distribute into communities like African-Americans and Latinx populations disproportionately.

    So, we knew this ahead of time. A global pandemic like this requires a universal response, and it requires a targeted response. And the targeted response means that you distribute resources to the communities that need them the most.

    That means low barrier testing, taking testing to these communities, making barriers, reducing barriers to things like masks, which are essential at this time, making sure that you protect workers in their workplaces, which is oftentimes where they're at risk, and making sure they have access to the type of health care that they need if they're feeling sick.

    And all of those things need to happen in these communities. And we're a little bit late to the game now, frankly.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo from the University of California, San Francisco.

    Thank you so much for being with us.

  • Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo:

    Thank you.

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