Is COVID-19 hitting African Americans disproportionately harder than whites?

Ohio reveals numbers, but local data hasn't been released
Posted at 5:52 PM, Apr 07, 2020

Editor’s note: With our coronavirus coverage, our goal is not to alarm you but to equip you with the information you need. We will try to keep things in context and focus on helping you make decisions. See a list of resources and frequently asked questions at the end of this story.

CINCINNATI - Renee Mahaffey Harris was watching closely as Ohio announced for the first time the COVID-19 numbers by race and ethnicity.

The numbers reflected a growing concern that African Americans are dying of COVID-19 at higher rates than other races.

Ohio Health Director Dr. Amy Acton announced Monday that COVID-19 deaths are 61% white and 27% black in a state where the population is 81.9% white and 13% black, according to 2019 estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Ohio COVID cases are 51% white and 18% black, Acton said.

Statewide, 25% are unknown because that’s how many case results do not list race, according to Acton.

Does such a disparity exist in the Tri-State? So far, the data hasn’t been reported.

Harris, who works to end racial health disparities as president and CEO of Closing The Health Gap, says more data gathering and reporting is necessary.

“I think the data will help us understand where resources and or time need to be focused so that we can be more, frankly, preventative and strategic together," said Harris.

According to an April 3 report from ProPublica, data indicates African Americans are being infected and dying of COVID-19 at higher rates in some parts of the country. The report cites Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, as well as Illinois and North Carolina – two of the few states publishing statistics on COVID-19 cases by race.

WCPO asked county health departments across the Tri-State what they are doing to track races of COVID-19 patients. All said they follow the direction of their state leaders when it comes to reporting COVID numbers by race and ethnicity.

The Northern Kentucky Health Department says it is tracking race data but not releasing it publicly due to privacy laws. It says that could change.

Kentucky state health staff say they are working to provide WCPO with race statistics.

While Indiana counties covered by WCPO have race data, officials are concerned about releasing it due to privacy laws and are waiting on the state to decide.

Many Ohioans simply don’t fill out the race line when they’re tested, Acton said.

“This data is collected on intake ... people are opting out of filling out that part,” Acton said. “We really need folks to fill that out as a way of getting some of the data. We are asking hospital systems to encourage people to fill out that data.”

Acton acknowledged that health disparities are prevalent in this country.

“There are environmental factors, there are economic factors,” said Harris.

Harris said it's possible African Americans experience more deaths proportionately due to COVID-19 because of higher rates of asthma, hypertension and other illnesses.

Harris said social distancing might be more difficult for those in dense housing and those using public transportation.

“I think we have disinvestments in the structures and systems that support one's quality of life," Harris said.

Lisa Sloane, founder and CEO of More Inclusive Healthcare, said it is important for health officials to break down COVID-19 numbers by race and ethnicity to give everyone a better idea of how the disease is impacting different people in our community.

Acton said she knows it's uncomfortable to discuss but it could be helpful in slowing the spread.

Find more coronavirus/COVID-19 hotlines and resources below:


  • Department of Health COVID-19 hotline: 833-4-ASK-ODH
  • See ODH’s COVID-19 resources here.


  • State COVID-19 hotline: 1-800-722-5725
  • See the Cabinet for Health and Family Services coronavirus resource site here.


  • SDH Epidemiology Resource Center: (317) 233-7125 or (317) 233-1325 after hours, or e-mail
  • See more information for coronavirus in Indiana here.

What is coronavirus, COVID-19?

According to the World Health Organization, coronaviruses are "a large family of viruses that cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV).

A novel coronavirus, such as COVID-19, is a new strain that has not been previously identified in humans.

COVID-19 was first identified in December 2019 in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, China and has now been detected in 37 locations across the globe, including in the U.S., according to the CDC.

The CDC reports the initial patients in China have some link to a large seafood and live animal market, indicative of animal-to-person spread. A growing number of patients, however, did not report exposure to animal markets, indicating the disease is spreading person-to-person.

What are the symptoms? How does it spread?

Confirmed cases of COVID-19 have ranged from mild symptoms to severe illness and death, according to the CDC. Symptoms can include fever, cough, shortness of breath.

The CDC said symptoms could appear in as few as two days or as long as 14 days after exposure. It is similar to the incubation period for MERS.

Spread of the virus is thought to be mainly from person-to-person. Spread is between people who are in close contact with one another (within about six feet). Spread occurs via respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. The droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs.

According to the CDC, it could be possible for a person to get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose or possibly their eyes. This is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads, the CDC said.

The disease is most contagious when people are the sickest and showing the most symptoms.