African Americans Infected and Dying of Coronavirus at Higher Rates

By Kelley Kauffman, MSN, APRN-CNP, PMHNP-BC, Center for Health Equity Engagement Education and Research

Milwaukee is one of the only places in the country tracking and reporting data on the race and ethnicity of people infected with and dying from coronavirus.  African Americans only constitute 26% of Milwaukee County’s population but, as of Friday morning 4/3/2020, African Americans made up almost half of the county’s 945 cases and 81% of its 27 deaths.   In Michigan, where the state population is 14% black, African Americans made up 35% of cases and 40% of deaths as of Friday morning. Detroit, where a majority of residents are black, has emerged as a hot spot with a high death rate. Similarly, Orleans Parish in New Orleans, where the residents are majority black, accounts for 40% of Louisiana’s Coronavirus deaths.

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Illinois and North Carolina are two of the few states publishing statistics on COVID-19 cases by race, and their data shows a disproportionate number of African Americans were infected.  Despite a focus on racial disparities in this blog post, it is important to note that experts do suggest that vulnerable populations of any race/ethnicity (low socioeconomic status, rural, poor access to healthcare, etc) are more likely to come into contact with the virus, become infected, and develop severe illness requiring advanced medical treatment. So why are African Americans being disproportionately infected with and dying from COVID-19?  The answer is both complicated and simple.  At a basic level, decades of racial segregation and institutional racism have created health disparities.  African Americans have higher rates of diabetes, asthma, heart disease, and hypertension.  In 2017, African Americans died from heart disease at a rate of 208/100,000, while whites died at a rate of 169/100,000.  All of these chronic conditions, as well as, higher rates of housing instability and higher representation in the “essential” workforce put African Americans at higher risk of infection with and death from COVID-19.  Data from China shows heart disease, nearly as much as age was a reliable indicator or whether a COVID-19 patient would need advanced medical treatment.

The Health Commissioner of Milwaukee is trying to address the disparity by using the data on infections and death by race to target which communities need more tailored messages about avoiding infections.  She acknowledges the distrust communities of color may have for the healthcare system and is working with community leaders to find a message that will resonate with this population.  Milwaukee has been setting up temporary, voluntary shelters (some in hotels) for self-quarantine when a person has unstable housing.  Residents are also being urged to call 211 if they need help with getting food or finding a place to stay.  Despite the efforts Milwaukee is taking to reach out to communities of color, experts still worry that as the disease spreads, not enough has or will be done to blunt the toll of race on COVID-19 infection and deaths.



  1. Johnson, A. & Buford, T. Early Data Shows African Americans Have Contracted and Died of Coronavirus at an Alarming Rate. April 3, 2020. Retrieved from
  2.  Whyte, LE. & Zubak-Skees, C. Underlying Health Disparities Could Mean Coronavirus Hits Some Communities Harder. April 1, 2020. Retrieved from