The coronavirus is disproportionately affecting Black and Hispanic people in Massachusetts, according to a new report that cites underlying racial and ethnic disparities in the state's health care system.

The report released by the state Department of Public Health shows that Black residents, who represent 7.2% of the state’s population, account for 14.4% of COVID-19 cases and 13.8% of hospitalizations. Hispanics account for 12.2% of the population but 29.3% of the COVID-19 cases and 15.8% of the hospitalizations.

Infection rates were three times lower for whites, who represent 71.5% of the population but only 45.3% of virus cases and 57.2% of hospitalizations.

The state's COVID-19 Health Equity Advisory Group, which produced the report, attributed the disproportionate impact to "racism, xenophobia and lack of economic opportunity," and it called for more equitable access to health care.

"We have long understood that racism is a public health issue that demands action, and the disproportionate impacts of this new disease on communities of color and other priority populations is the latest indicator change is necessary," said Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel, who chaired the 27-member panel, in a statement.

The report showed that white residents account for a majority of COVID-19 deaths in the state, or 73.5% of more than 7,800 cases. Another 8.2% of deaths have been Black patients, 6.8% Hispanics and 2.8% Asians.

But death rates, when adjusted for age, show that Black and Hispanic communities are more affected.

Nine of the 10 cities and towns with the highest rates of COVID-19 infection, including Lawrence, are predominately communities of color, the report noted.

Amy Rosenthal, executive director of nonprofit group Health Care For All, said the data helps "shine a light on the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color that was somewhat masked by the aggregate numbers."

She said the state needs to ease disparities by ensuring safe reopening standards and improving "social determinants" of health care such as access to housing.

"If there is a lesson the pandemic has taught us, it is that we have to take concrete action to improve health equity," Rosenthal said.

Massachusetts and other states have been under pressure to release more data on the race and ethnicity of those who are sick, hospitalized or dying from COVID-19.

In April, the state began publishing demographic data on COVID-19 cases after being criticized for not doing so, but its reports were full of holes. Racial and ethnic data was available for only about half of the reported cases, which officials have attributed to incomplete reporting from health care providers and private labs.

The lack of details has made it difficult for policymakers to devote COVID-19 resources to specific ethnic or racial groups, or communities that are more affected.

Earlier this month, Gov. Charlie Baker signed an executive order compelling the state to publish more detailed information about who is infected.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com.

 

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