CDC study finds 80% of COVID-19 patients in Georgia are black

By RACHEL WEINER | The Washington Post | Published: April 29, 2020

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As Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp moves to reopen more businesses, a new study underscores the disproportionate toll the virus has taken on the state’s African American population.

Surveying eight Georgia hospitals, researchers found that in a sample of 305 COVID-19 patients, 247 were black — more than 80% and more than they expected.

“It is important to continue ongoing efforts to understand the reasons for these racial disparities, including the role of socioeconomic and occupational factors in transmission,” the researchers wrote. “Public officials should consider racial differences among patients affected by COVID-19 when planning prevention activities.”

While limited by time and geography, the results of the study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released Wednesday echo research showing that black Americans are more likely to be infected and to die of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Kemp, a Republican, pushed forward in recent days with a reopening of businesses across the state, a decision made without input from state and local health officials. Many black leaders have criticized that decision, saying their communities will suffer the most if coronavirus cases spike and the virus overwhelms state resources.

“We call upon our local political leaders to continue to work on behalf of all Georgia citizens, and especially its most vulnerable citizens who need and deserve reparative outreach and service,” the state’s NAACP said.

About 40% of the 305 patients in the study had diabetes, and a quarter had cardiovascular disease. Previous research by the CDC, which is based in Atlanta, has shown that people who have chronic medical conditions face an increased chance of being hospitalized with COVID-19 and of being put into intensive care. Diabetes is twice as common among black Georgia residents as whites, and black Georgians are more likely than whites to die of heart disease.

But a quarter of the patients included in the study had no preexisting conditions, and 5% of those patients died, a reminder the virus can cause significant illness and death for previously healthy patients.

The median age of patients studied was 60. Most had private insurance or Medicare, 11% were on Medicaid and 15% were uninsured. All the Medicaid patients in the study were black, but the black patients were no more likely than others to be uninsured.

Statewide, African Americans are less likely to be insured, according to Benjamin Lopman, a professor of epidemiology at Emory University. They’re also more likely to work in industries with a greater risk of exposure, such as transportation, nursing homes and animal slaughter plants, Lopman said.

The black patients studied were not more likely than those of other races to require treatment with ventilators or to die while hospitalized. The researchers did not follow the patients after discharge or after the study ended, when 8% remained in the hospital. During the monthlong study, 48 patients died.

State numbers indicate that African Americans, about 30% of Georgia’s population, make up about 36% of confirmed COVID-19 patients and more than 50% of patients who have died. The state stopped reporting COVID-19 deaths by race this week, though a spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Health said the agency hopes to release those numbers again in the next few days.

Georgia has moved more quickly than any other state in reopening businesses after a stay-home order. Bowling alleys, tattoo parlors, gyms and salons were allowed to open last week, followed by movie theaters and restaurants Monday. Vacation rentals can open Friday.

A funeral in February in a small and largely black southwestern Georgia community is believed to have sparked an outbreak that took 117 lives in Dougherty County, more than anywhere else in the state.

Seven of the hospitals that participated in the study are in the Atlanta area; one is in southern Georgia.

One of the study researchers is a doctor from the only hospital in Dougherty County, which is the only hospital in southwestern Georgia equipped to handle COVID-19 patients. In contrast to other states, Georgia has seen a higher case death rate in rural areas than in urban centers. The five counties with the highest number of cases per capita are in southwestern Georgia, all predominantly black.