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Misinformation, Distrust May Contribute To Black Americans' COVID-19 Deaths


In some parts of this country, black Americans are dying at high rates of COVID-19. Here's an example. As of Monday in Milwaukee County, nearly three-quarters of the residents who died of the virus were black. But black Americans make up only 28% of the county's population. Data from Louisiana, Michigan, Chicago and New York also shows racial imbalances. What is going on? At a Coronavirus Task Force briefing this week, Dr. Anthony Fauci talked about systemic challenges.


ANTHONY FAUCI: Health disparities have always existed for the African American community. But here again with the crisis, how it's shining a bright light on how unacceptable that is.

KING: He means things like underlying health conditions, lack of insurance, substandard housing - challenges caused and then exacerbated by racism. Jahmil Lacey spends a lot of time thinking about those challenges. He studies health disparities in South Central Los Angeles. He says there's another challenge here, too - misinformation.

JAHMIL LACEY: When the pandemic first started, there were a lot of rumblings around like this being a hoax. I've heard stories about people believing that, you know, black people were immune to coronavirus.

KING: Misinformation is not unique to black Americans. If you were watching Fox News last month, you might have seen white pundits suggesting that COVID-19 was being blown out of proportion - that it was a hoax. But there is, Jahmil says, a long-standing mistrust that some black Americans feel toward the public health establishment. It is not causing infections, but it's real.

LACEY: You know, I think in order to understand the depth of distrust black people have towards health care institutions, having an awareness of the long history of medical experimentation on black people is important. Oftentimes when we talk about distrust, you know, between black people and health care, people will bring up the Tuskegee experiment. You know, it was a 40-year study - 40 years that was conducted by our government, the U.S. Public Health Service, where black men with syphilis went untreated. And the purpose of that experiment was to chronicle the progression of the disease.

KING: These men were getting sick and doctors knew why but weren't telling them why they were getting sick.

LACEY: Exactly. And I think that it also extends to - when you think about if a vaccine is being created for this virus, like, Vice President Pence talked about an experimental drug being used on 3,000 patients in Detroit. And so there is a lot of, you know, just skepticism about that because, you know, this is a drug that hasn't - that the research around this drug hasn't really been very sound. And what they're proposing to do is to use this drug with black patients.

KING: Did the vice president come out and say we want to test the drug on black Americans or was the assumption, if you're testing it in Detroit, a majority-black city, you are going to be testing it on black Americans?

LACEY: You know, Detroit is predominantly black city. But yes, there was an assumption made that this would only be used for black patients. Absolutely.

KING: We talked to Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy on the show. He's a medical doctor. His state is seeing a disproportionate number of deaths among black residents. Here's what he had to say.


BILL CASSIDY: African Americans are going to have more of those receptors inherent in their having the diabetes, the hypertension, the obesity and inherent in them having an overrepresentation of that. So there's a physiologic reason which is explaining this.

KING: Is he right? To what extent is he right or is he wrong?

LACEY: I find his statements to be a little dishonest and lazy. So the fact of the matter is yes, hypertension and diabetes are silent killers and they also are what we find in patients that are being impacted by the coronavirus in our communities. But what I think we're actually - the real issue here is that the coronavirus is unmasking what I consider the negligence and disinvestment in black communities that we've been forced to live with for generations. And just the reality is that these conditions are a function of poverty, right? And so when we talk about these things, we have to consider the full picture and not just place the blame on individuals.

KING: Jahmil Lacey, thank you so much for being with us.

LACEY: Thank you.

KING: Jahmil Lacey researches health disparities in South Central Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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