During the White House’s coronavirus briefing on Tuesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the COVID-19 pandemic showed that health disparities among African Americans were “unacceptable.”
Earlier today, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services updated its COVID-19 webpage with race and ethnicity information about patients who’ve been infected with — and perished because of — the novel coronavirus.
As of 2pm today, the DHS reported 2,885 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 111 deaths in Wisconsin. Black Wisconsinites account for just under 7 percent of the state’s total population, but make up about 27 percent of the state’s COVID-19 cases and 44 percent of its deaths.
Dr. Ryan Westergaard, Wisconsin’s Chief Medical Officer and State Epidemiologist, says the statistics stem from underlying health conditions, including asthma, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and autoimmune conditions, that are often found in urban communities.
“We know [that] in Milwaukee County and our urban communities, particularly our poor urban communities and our ethnic minority communities, that there [are] health disparities through a large range of health conditions, and those have to do with both economic situations, but also healthcare resources,” Westergaard says. “So, one of the things we’re really focused on is not just counting and just doing epidemiology, but actually getting health services to areas where the cases are. We need to put our efforts most vigorously where the cases are, and right now [that’s] the urban areas.”
Over half of the state’s COVID-19 cases and deaths are in Milwaukee County. Fred Royal, President of the NAACP’s Milwaukee Branch, says the health disparities in Milwaukee are rooted in multiple structural issues and cultural differences.
“Some of it is embedded in historical racism within the healthcare system, some of it is embedded in the high unemployment rates [and] high poverty rates within the city because we have an employer-based health system in this country, some of it is embedded in cultural nuances in which minorities have not always trusted the information coming from government, and some of it is embedded in our social activities,” Royal says.
Royal also says Wisconsin’s decision to hold its elections on Tuesday was a bipartisan “failure of leadership,” and that he expects the number of cases in Milwaukee to spike in coming weeks.
In order to prevent the further spread of the virus, contact tracers are working to notify those who have come into contact with someone confirmed with COVID-19 that they need to quarantine for 14 days from their last point of contact.
Milwaukee’s Commissioner of Health Jeanette Kiwalik says that task can be particularly challenging in urban areas.
“It’s a very daunting task,” Kiwalik says. “Sometimes people can have one contact and sometimes other people can have a hundred contacts. So, it can be very time consuming to get a hold of all these people, and since we are in an urban environment there is a lot of transience, a lot of changing of phone numbers and whatnot. So, we have experienced more challenges getting a hold of many people because just historically there’s some challenges with [finding the right] phone numbers and whatnot.”
In a press release this afternoon, the DHS announced it has added more than 120 contact tracers to aid local public health departments statewide.
According to the Department, contact tracers have followed up on more than 1,000 interviews to identify and notify contacts for the Milwaukee Health Department alone.