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Patients dying of COVID-19 are disproportionately black. Chicago’s mayor isn’t surprised

According to early data about the scope of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S., COVID-19 is hitting Americans of color especially hard. The CDC has not published racial breakdowns of deaths, but some states are -- and they show that patients dying of the disease are disproportionately black. That trend is evident in Chicago, whose mayor, Lori Lightfoot, joins Yamiche Alcindor to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The pandemic hitting the U.S. is hitting people of color especially hard, according to early data.

    The CDC has not published breakdowns of deaths by race, but some places are disclosing that, and the numbers are alarming. In Michigan, roughly 40 percent of deaths were among African-Americans last week. In Louisiana, almost 70 percent of deaths were. And that was true in Chicago as well.

    As part of our Race Matters series, Yamiche Alcindor takes a closer look at what is happening.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The trends are particularly bad in Chicago.

    That city's mayor, Lori Lightfoot, joins me now.

    Thanks so much for being here, Mayor Lightfoot.

  • Mayor Lori Lightfoot:

    My pleasure.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    In Chicago, some 70 percent of the people who have died from the coronavirus are African-American, and the city's population is only 29 percent African-American.

    We're seeing other trends in Michigan and Louisiana that also show that African-Americans are disproportionately part of the death rates in those states.

    What's behind these numbers? And what can be done to better protect the people most at risk?

  • Mayor Lori Lightfoot:

    Well, look, these numbers are shocking, to be sure, but they're not entirely surprising.

    And the reason is, we have been talking about the health disparities in our city really for years. When you see that African-Americans disproportionately have high rates of diabetes, heart disease, and a range of respiratory problems, this disease attacks those underlying medical conditions with a vengeance.

    So, given that disparity in health conditions and life expectancy, we are doing everything that we can to do two things, number one, make sure that we have good data, so we can really effectively measure the impact of this disease.

    We're — we put these numbers out, knowing that still 25 percent of the providers are not reporting demographic information. So, we put in place an order yesterday that requires that reporting.

    The other thing that we're doing is, we have mobilized what we're calling a racial equity rapid response team. We have a model in one area of our city that has really broken down a lot of barriers to getting African-Americans access to health care, demystifying the system, and really bringing them into preventative care.

    We're going to take that model, and then we're going to implement that in a hyper-local way, but all over the city. We're focused on the areas where we're seeing the highest percentage of death, but then we will expand it out from there.

    This is a call to action. And when I first saw these numbers, I have to tell you, it took my breath away. But I resolved that we had to do something to make sure that we weren't just bringing people bad news; we were giving them tools to help themselves.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Social distancing for some is a privilege.

  • Mayor Lori Lightfoot:


  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    African-Americans are more likely in your city and in cities across the country to have to — to take public transportation. They're also more likely to hold jobs that you can't do from home.

    What should be done to make sure that people aren't putting their lives at risk because they have to go to work?

  • Mayor Lori Lightfoot:

    Well, a couple of things. And you're 100 percent right.

    In many of our African-American households, they don't have three, four floors where they can separate themselves. So what we're saying is, if you have got somebody in your house that's got an underlying medical condition and/or is a senior, make sure that they are segregated out from someone else, in a bedroom, or someplace else, where they can, in effect, quarantine in place, to have a plan for who is going to be going out, whether you have to work or if that same person should be the person that goes out to get groceries and other essential supplies.

    The other thing that we have done on the South Side and the West Side is making sure that we're putting more buses with double carriages, if you will, so that we can avoid the crowding on public transportation.

    And then, again, it's all about education and connecting people up to health care, emphasizing making sure that you're washing your hands on a regular basis, and using other kinds of product to sanitize your hands, and making sure that, if you're sick, are you going to see a doctor.

    So, those are the kind of strategies that we're going to be employing and making sure that, for example, grocery stores and liquor stores, where we tend to congregate, that those vendors are exercising social distance in how they're allowing customers to move in and out of their facilities.

    We're going to be much more aggressively inspecting and citing, if necessary.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    African-Americans and people of color also make up a lot of health care workers that are on the front lines of this battle against the coronavirus.

    When you look at the lack of personal protective equipment and tests, how is that impacting the people that are doing those jobs, especially African-Americans and people of color?

  • Mayor Lori Lightfoot:

    Well, what I can say is, here in Chicago, our — one of our top priorities has been making sure that we keep our health care system strong and vibrant to be able to meet the surge and the challenge that we have.

    And that includes making sure that our health care workers are protected. So we have done a number of things to help them. But we have shipped out literally millions of pieces of PPE equipment, shields, gowns, gloves, the works, to make sure that our health care workers need the equipment, have the equipment that they need to keep themselves safe.

    In addition to that, we have stood up two hotels just for health care workers to give them respite. We know that many of our health workers travel great distances to the hospitals and clinics in which they work.

    We wanted to give them an opportunity to get respite, without having to go all the way back home or worrying about whether or not they were taking the infection to their households. So, that's another support that we have given our health care workers here in Chicago.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, she held a call today with reporters. And she said, this is an emergency, and that data is needed.

    She called for the CDC and other federal agencies to start collecting and sharing data as it relates to racial breakdowns for the coronavirus.

    Where do you stand on the lack of data and the need for data when it comes to the coronavirus?

  • Mayor Lori Lightfoot:

    Well, the data is absolutely essential.

    And one of the things that we ordered yesterday was to make sure that all providers that are doing testing and that are treating patients aren't skipping adding in the demographic information that's so critical for us to be able to measure the impact on a race and ethnicity basis across our city.

    So we have got a lot of reporting that's happening, but we need to make sure that we fill in that 25 percent that we have been missing in terms of demographic information.

    But I agree with you that the data is critically important. It's up on our Web site, Chicago.gov/coronavirus. That information is updated and has been on a daily basis. But we're going to be breaking out the demographic information, and we started that yesterday.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, thank you so much for joining us, Lori Lightfoot, mayor of Chicago.

  • Mayor Lori Lightfoot:

    My pleasure. Thank you.

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