As US COVID-19 death toll nears 600,000, racial gaps persist
Jerry Ramos spent his final days in a California hospital, hooked to an oxygen machine with blood clots in his lungs from COVID-19, his 3-year-old daughter in his thoughts.
“I have to be here to watch my princess grow up,” the Mexican American restaurant worker wrote on Facebook. “My heart feels broken into pieces.”
Ramos didn’t live to see it. He died Feb. 15 at age 32, becoming not just one of the nearly 600,000 Americans who have now perished in the coronavirus outbreak but another example of the outbreak’s strikingly uneven and ever-shifting toll on the nation’s racial and ethnic groups.
The approaching 600,000 mark, as tracked by Johns Hopkins University, is greater than the population of Baltimore or Milwaukee. It is about equal to the number of Americans who died of cancer in 2019. And as bad as that is, the true toll is believed to be significantly higher.
Family members of Jerry Ramos become emotional when looking at a photo of him at the family home in Watsonville, Calif., Sunday, June 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Nic Coury).
President Joe Biden acknowledged the milestone Monday during his visit to Europe, saying that while new cases and deaths are dropping dramatically in the U.S.,
“there’s still too many lives being lost,” and “now is not the time to let our guard down.”
On the way to the latest round-number milestone, the virus has proved adept at exploiting inequalities in the U.S., according to an Associated Press data analysis.
In the first wave of fatalities, in April 2020, Black people were slammed, dying at rates higher than those of other ethnic or racial groups as the virus rampaged through the urban Northeast and heavily African American cities like Detroit and New Orleans.
Last summer, during a second surge, Hispanics were hit the hardest, suffering an outsize share of deaths, driven by infections in Texas and Florida. By winter, during the third and most lethal stage, the virus had gripped the entire nation, and racial gaps in weekly death rates had narrowed so much that whites were the worst off, followed closely by Hispanics.
Now, even as the outbreak ebbs and more people get vaccinated, a racial gap appears to be emerging again, with Black Americans dying at higher rates than other groups.
Overall, Black and Hispanic Americans have less access to medical care and are in poorer health, with higher rates of conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure. They are also more likely to have jobs deemed essential, less able to work from home and more likely to live in crowded, multigenerational households, where working family members are apt to expose others to the virus.
Black people account for 15% of all COVID-19 deaths where race is known, while Hispanics represent 19%, whites 61% and Asian Americans 4%. Those figures are close to the groups’ share of the U.S. population — Black people at 12%, Hispanics 18%, whites 60% and Asians 6% — but adjusting for age yields a clearer picture of the unequal burden.
Because Blacks and Hispanics are younger on average than whites, it would stand to reason that they would be less likely to die from a disease that has been brutal to the elderly. But that’s not what is happening.
Instead, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adjusting for population age differences, estimates that Native Americans, Latinos and Blacks are two to three times more likely