When it comes to health disparities, Lafayette’s coronavirus data still has big gaps

The gist: We know that coronavirus is having a disproportionately deadly impact on black communities across America and in Louisiana. Local demographic data is somewhat hard to come by, however. In Louisiana, 60% of the more than 1,000 deaths reported to date were African American, spurring the governor to launch a statewide task force in response. But at the regional and local level, it’s hard to get a handle on how that trend is playing out.

Milwaukee, Wisc., one of the few places with local demographic data on the outbreak, has used that info to inform its strategy. According to The Washington Post, early detection pushed local officials to deploy more testing in predominantly black areas, at close to twice the rate of Milwaukee’s white neighborhoods. Milwaukee has data on hospitalization rates and infection rates by race. Around 28% of the county population is African American, and so are approximately half the people infected. 

To be clear, good data hasn’t stopped the spread. Getting the word out in the midwestern capital is still an ad hoc process led primarily by community groups. But the info has at least helped officials be more targeted in their approach while testing supplies remain restricted — with some growing availability — nationwide. 

The problem isn’t so much a greater risk of infection, but severity. That’s bearing out not just in Milwaukee and Louisiana, but everywhere. Underlying conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity are disproportionately common among African Americans and appear to make coronavirus all the more deadly. 

“There’s a reason they call high blood pressure the silent killer,” says Dr. Lawrence Simon, the regional medical director for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Louisiana. High blood pressure weakens the heart in a way that would make patients more vulnerable to how coronavirus attacks lungs. 

Louisiana has not released parish or city level demographic data. A Louisiana Department of Health spokeswoman says the state is releasing as much information as possible. “Deaths are reported on aggregate for the whole state,” she says. LDH maintains a dashboard dense with detailed info and has added new categories of data along the way, including stats the press has clamored for, like counts of hospital beds, ICUs and ventilators. Recently, officials have caught heat for no longer releasing the names of assisted living facilities where clusters have broken out. It’s been a push and pull on what info the public deserves from the jump. 

Note: the Johns Hopkins dashboards linked to below lag behind the state data.

Meanwhile, we’re seeing at least geographic disparities around Acadiana. And it’s difficult, without precise data, to know what exactly the underlying causes are, but race and poverty would appear to play significant roles. Coronavirus numbers in Acadiana are comparatively low when looking at the New Orleans area, but broken down by parish, there are severe disparities. The case fatality rate in Lafayette Parish, the largest and most affluent area of Acadiana, is around 4.1%, roughly comparable to the state trend. St. Landry Parish, on the other hand, has a case fatality rate of 13.9% — the parish is both poorer and home to a larger proportion of African Americans than Lafayette. More people have succumbed to coronavirus in St. Landry (16) than in Lafayette (15); 32% of St. Landry Parish lives in poverty vs. 15% in Lafayette; and 41% of its population is African American vs. 26% in Lafayette. By contrast, East Baton Rouge Parish’s population also tracks the state’s 4.7% fatality rate. Its black community makes up a larger percentage of the population than St. Landry’s, but its poverty rate is comparable to Lafayette’s.

Why this matters: The pandemic has illuminated major problems that have long plagued American society, chief among them disparate access to health care among underserved communities.