The telling numbers: How COVID-19 has hit Black residents in NJ

Higher impact of the disease is associated with existing health factors as well as social factors
Credit: (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
File photo: A family mourns a young woman who died from COVID-19.

More evidence of COVID-19’s disparate impact on New Jersey’s African Americans can be found in an analysis by state health officials and a study by Rutgers University professors.

The state Department of Health adjusted cases, hospitalizations and deaths from the disease caused by the novel coronavirus for age and found the rate of infection among Black residents exceeded that of white residents, 4,181 per 100,000 compared with 3,332. African Americans were more than twice as likely as whites to be hospitalized from COVID-19 (810 per 100,000 versus 303) or to die from the disease (267 per 100,000 versus 120). Earlier this month, death data for 2020 showed COVID-19 was the number one killer of Blacks in New Jersey, with one of five African American deaths attributed to the disease and related conditions.

Health officials have noted the disparate impact the virus was having on Black and brown communities since early in the pandemic. The state’s COVID-19 information portal breaks out cases, hospitalizations and deaths by race. The state health commissioner typically relates some of this information during her briefings on the pandemic.

A recent study by a group of Rutgers University researchers published in the Journal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities found that COVID-19 mortality racial disparities in the U.S. are associated with such social factors as income, education and internet access and highlights the need for public-health policies that address structural racism.

The researchers looked at the association between COVID-19 cases and deaths in 2,026 U.S. counties from January to October 2020 and social determinants of health that can raise the risk for infection and death. They also looked at factors known or thought to impact COVID-19 outcomes, including the counties’ population density and such health factors as obesity, diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and high blood pressure.

Lack of internet is important indicator

The study found that a higher rate in a county’s percent of Black residents, uninsured adults, low birth-weight infants, adults without a high school diploma, incarceration rate and households without internet increased that county’s COVID-19 death rates during the period examined. Counties that were the most deprived socioeconomically had a 67% increase in the COVID-19 death rate. Michelle DallaPiazza, lead author of the study and an associate professor at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, said the percent of households without internet — which provides updated knowledge of the pandemic and allows remote working and learning — and the percentage of adults without a high school diploma were the factors most associated with a county’s COVID-19 death rate.

“The findings are consistent with historical health inequities in marginalized populations, particularly Black Americans,” DallaPiazza said. “This adds to the extensive literature on racial health disparities that demonstrate that social and structural factors greatly influence health outcomes, and this is particularly true when it comes to COVID-19.”

Dr. Robert Johnson, dean of the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and interim dean of Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, said it is well-known that certain factors influence the way diseases like COVID-19 impact African Americans and others and policymakers need to make greater efforts to change these.

“They’re adversely affected by poverty,” Johnson said. “They’re adversely affected by the environment they live in, adversely affected by poor nutrition. All these things need to be changed. Every time we have a severe chronic illness this is the outcome we get because the health disparities are real.”