With health departments in several states and in New York City reporting a higher-than-expected prevalence of COVID-19 among Black people, and news that people of color are dying at a younger age than others afflicted with the illness, there is troubling news about race and the pandemic on Cape Cod.
Using information made public after the New York Times sued the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, Barnstable County officials learned that while Black people make up about 3 percent of the Cape’s population, they account for about 9 percent of COVID-19 cases.
“The disparity is three-to-one,” said State Sen. Julian Cyr, a Truro Democrat.
The troubling data was not only withheld from public view, but is also incomplete because of different reporting procedures from testing facilities. On Cape Cod, cases were tabulated from the start of the pandemic through May, and only 49 percent of those cases included data on the patient’s race and demography. Even though the information is incomplete, “the picture it’s showing is pretty stark,” Cyr said.
Vaira Harik, deputy director of Barnstable County’s Department of Human Services, said similar racial disparities are seen in other health data, like figures on diabetes and hypertension, on both a national and local level. It’s established that people’s economic stability, educational status and access to physicians bear on their overall health, “and we can’t overlook the various stressors and lack of accessibility that our residents of color have,” she said. There is also concern that COVID-19 may make people more vulnerable to other health problems later in life.
The discussion can’t be limited to statistics, said Jerry Fishbein of the Service Employees International Union Local 1199, which represents health care and other types of essential workers.
“We’re talking about our neighbors and our family members,” he said. Examining the racial disparity is important, and “it’s a discussion that can’t stop after the reopening,” Fishbein said. On Cape Cod, “many of the positive tests and deaths have been in nursing homes, where nursing home residents are overwhelmingly not people of color,” he noted. That fact casts doubt on the three-to-one figure.
“It may be even an uglier picture,” Fishbein said.
Cyr said he believes part of the problem is a disparity in access to health coverage, with people contracting COVID-19 being less likely to have a primary care doctor. But low-income seasonal workers on Cape Cod are also the victims of an “out-of-whack real estate market,” that puts proper housing out of reach for many, he said. When many people are forced to share close quarters, they are at higher risk of spreading the coronavirus, he noted.
“Social distancing, self-isolation are luxuries,” Cyr said.
To solve the problem first requires fully understanding it, and there are serious gaps in the available data, he noted. Lawmakers on Beacon Hill are working on the issue, but until there is a better reporting process for COVID-19 demographic data, the full scope of the problem won’t be known, Cyr said.
Harik praised the New York Times for obtaining and tabulating the data from the CDC, which gets its numbers from state public health departments. That information comes from individual towns and counties, and local officials should have more immediate and direct access to that kind of public health data, she noted. The data is also not consistently reported; in Massachusetts, there is statewide racial data on COVID-19 case numbers and deaths, but not on the number of people who are hospitalized, a key metric. As a county, Barnstable should have access to the most complete data possible “so that we can be as responsive as possible to who’s dying and what they look like from various points of view, so we can try to get upstream of this,” Harik said.
Dr. William Agel of Cape Cod Healthcare said his organization doesn’t characterize patients by race, and so isn’t contributing that information.
“We absolutely need more data from the department of public health and the state to be able to manage this issue,” he said.
Cyr said policymakers have a lot of work to do to address the racial disparity.
“It’s alarming, it’s unacceptable, and it’s something we need to get to the bottom of,” particularly with the threat of a COVID-19 resurgence in the fall, Cyr said.