First local COVID numbers on race confirm disparity in virus spread

By , Daily Memphian Updated: April 08, 2020 2:37 PM CT | Published: April 08, 2020 2:37 PM CT

More than two-thirds of the confirmed COVID-19 cases in Shelby County — 66% — are African Americans, according to a first and preliminary analysis by the Shelby County Health Department. And 71% of the deaths locally have been among African Americans.

The first analysis by the health department is limited and ongoing because it does not cover all 897 confirmed cases and 21 deaths as reported Wednesday morning.

But it confirms what civil and public health officials expected the data would show. The same disparity has been documented in other major American cities and in eight states since earlier in the pandemic that was declared in mid-March.

David Sweat, chief of epidemiology for the health department, said the racial disparity percentages are from 203 of the 897 confirmed cases. Those are the cases in which the health department has investigated and data from those interviews has been entered into databases. The investigations and data entry continue, Sweat said.

“This virus does not care how old we are. It doesn’t care what our racial makeup is,” Sweat said at a noon online briefing. “But it is having a very profound impact on our minority communities.”

The finding of the racial disparity confirms national trends seen in other major cities and states where local health officials have put together their own data. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not list race in its data which comes from local jurisdictions.

Shelby County Health Department Director Alisa Haushalter said Tuesday her agency keeps the race data on written results, and having to enter that data delayed making the figures public.

“We are very actively working to get all of the information into the computers so we can answer those questions,” Sweat said Wednesday. “The other thing we have to realize is not everyone answers that question. And we do always have missing race data for all diseases because it’s not universally captured and not universally passed along.”

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Sweat and health officer Bruce Randolph said the disparity is also confirmed by a number of contributing factors that can make the virus lethal, including diabetes, heart conditions and other medical conditions that have been proven to be disproportionately present among African Americans.

More than 80% of the 18 COVID deaths examined in the Shelby County data were among people with cardiac conditions. Just under 40% had a history of diabetes.

In other developments from the briefing:

Budget outlook

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland described his plans for presenting a city budget proposal in two weeks as “not a pretty picture.” The city has instituted a hiring freeze with exceptions for public safety jobs. Strickland estimates the city could lose 20% to 25% of its sales tax revenue because of the pandemic and restrictions on travel and businesses.

“The question is for how long,” he said.

The city hopes to make up whatever the sales tax revenue hit is with stimulus money from the federal government that is to go directly to local governments. The city is still awaiting the federal regulations to determine what it can and cannot do on that front.

Call center

Strickland also said the city is about to establish a call center funded with a grant from the city’s COVID-19 fund that will employ laid-off restaurant and tourism workers to stay in touch with public housing residents during the pandemic.

Field hospital

He also said the field hospital the Army Corps of Engineers is setting up in a strip retail center on Jackson Avenue will probably be a secondary field hospital to one closer to other existing hospitals.

The Pipkin Center at the Fairgrounds will serve as a triage center as part of the Memphis Fire Department’s plans to handle the peak of the pandemic locally.

Editor’s Note: The Daily Memphian is making our coronavirus coverage accessible to all readers — no subscription needed. Our journalists continue to work around the clock to provide you with the extensive coverage you need; if you can subscribe, please do

Business, church closings

The two businesses that have been cited by city code enforcement for refusing to close are both car washes and one closed voluntarily after it was cited, Strickland said.

Strickland and Randolph urged all places of worship not to hold Passover or Easter services this weekend. Randolph said the specific restrictions allow services of no more than 10 people standing six feet apart from each other.

And Randolph said those guidelines apply to indoor worship services or those on parking lots, which some congregations have been using in recent weeks. Strickland has also talked with local religious leaders this week privately, urging them not to have live worship services this weekend.


coronavirus Coronavirus racial disparity David Sweat Jim Strickland Dr. Bruce Randolph

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Bill Dries

Bill Dries

Bill Dries covers city and county government and politics. He is a native Memphian and has been a reporter for more than 40 years.


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