Health and Science

White House officials worry the coronavirus is hitting African Americans worse than others

Dr. Anthony Fauci, at a daily briefing at the White House, March 24, 2020.
Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

White House officials worry that the COVID-19 outbreak is disproportionately hitting African Americans harder than other groups and are working with state and local officials to begin tracking how the coronavirus impacts different ethnicities.

Dr. Anthnony Fauci, who sits on President Donald Trump's coronavirus task force, said the COVID-19 outbreak is "shining a bright light" on how "unacceptable" the health disparities between blacks and whites are. "Yet again, when you have a situation like the coronavirus, they are suffering disproportionately," Fauci said of minorities. 

"It's not that they are getting infected more often. It's that when they do get infected, their underlying medical conditions ... wind them up in the ICU," he said at a White House press conference Tuesday.

Public health officials have known that conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, and asthma disproportionately affect African Americans, Fauci said. "Unfortunately, when you look at the predisposing conditions that lead to a bad outcome with coronavirus, the things that get people into ICUs that require intubation that often lead to death, they are just those very comorbidities."

Dr. Deborah Birx , coordinator for the White House coronavirus task force, said officials are working with black communities to improve messaging on the risks of the virus.

"We don't want to give the impression that the African American community is more susceptible to the virus. We don't have any data that suggests that. What our data suggests is they are more susceptible to more difficult and severe disease and poorer outcomes," she said.

The comments echoed those made by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio earlier in the day.

During a press briefing, De Blasio said people of color and people in lower-income communities, which historically have had more health problems, are getting hit disproportionately harder by the coronavirus. The city hasn't released race data for the outbreak, but de Blasio said the city plans to do so later this week, although he warned that the data wasn't preliminary.

"The extent of that disparity we're still fully trying to understand. And the data we'll give you will help us understand, but it will not be the final word, because ... it is preliminary and imperfect in the middle of a crisis," he said. "The ethnicity data in a crisis atmosphere where health care is being provided rapidly to everyone that can be reached, that's been less of a focus."

Correction: This story was revised to correct a word in a quotation by Fauci. He said "intubation."