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Experts say underlying medical conditions as well as socioeconomic factors puts older Black Americans at higher risk of dying from COVID-19. Getty Images
  • A new report concludes that older Black Americans are at higher risk of dying from COVID-19 than most of the population.
  • One factor is older Black Americans are more likely to have underlying medical conditions.
  • Another factor is many older Black Americans live in multigenerational homes where the new coronavirus can spread more easily.
  • In addition, older Black Americans may be more reluctant to get tested or seek treatment because of mistrust of healthcare professionals.

By 5 a.m., Christopher Tate is already in line, waiting for the stores to open.

He has a long shopping list for groceries, hard-to-find disinfectants, wipes, and masks.

None of it is for his family, but for more than 100 Black seniors he began helping not long after the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

“I started off with three people and it just kept growing. My late mother’s friends and neighbors, people from my church, my community. Now it’s like 140 people,” Tate told Healthline.

Sidelined by the pandemic, the paralegal teleworks from his Washington, D.C., home. Throughout the day, on evenings, and weekends, Tate makes what he calls “Hazel Runs,” the deliveries named for his mother.

In April, he lost three friends to the virus. They died within days of each other.

“That inspired me even more to stay vigilant to keep our seniors at home,” he said. “It’s too risky for them to be out here.”

Turns out Tate is onto something.

According to a new analysis, older Black Americans are the group most at risk of dying from COVID-19.

Kaiser Health News came to this conclusion by analyzing data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on COVID-19 deaths by race, age, and state.

They report that Black Americans ages 65 to 74 died from COVID-19 five times more often than white Americans.

In the 75 to 84 age group, the death rate for Black Americans was 3.5 times greater. In the age group 85 and older, Black Americans died twice as often.

Experts say there are numerous factors causing the higher risk among Black Americans.

One major reason is that Black Americans are more likely to develop chronic health conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity, all conditions that appear to contribute to poor COVID-19 outcomes.

“Unfortunately, there is a decades-long history of accumulated health disparities in the African American community that I think are playing out and putting older African Americans at greater risk,” said Edna Kane-Williams, MA, the senior vice president for multicultural leadership at AARP.

“There’s also not access to quality healthcare uniformly for older African Americans,” Kane-Williams told Healthline. “They may not have adequate health insurance.”

“Many older African Americans depend on Social Security, and that’s based on earned income,” she added.

Karen D. Lincoln, PhD, is an associate professor of social work at the University of Southern California and director of the USC Hartford Center of Excellence in Geriatric Social Work.

“Think about how many weren’t able to earn a living wage because of the types of jobs we were allowed to have because of segregation and Jim Crow [laws],” Lincoln told Healthline.

Experts say another factor is where and how older Black Americans live.

“The most vulnerable older African Americans might not be in a nursing home but in the community,” Lincoln said. “About 20 percent, if not more, of African Americans live in multigenerational households, and you have a lot of people [living there].”

“You have essential workers coming in and out, you have close quarters, you’re unable to socially distance. You’re caring for children. If someone gets sick, it’s very difficult to practice the public health mitigation standards of quarantine,” she explained.

“Frontline workers, people in service industries often are people of color and aren’t able to work from home,” added Kane-Williams. “So, they’re traveling on public transportation, out every day interacting with people. They may have been exposed to the virus, then come home to vulnerable older relatives.”

“Other older African Americans may live in apartments or senior housing complexes where they share elevators, laundry rooms, mailboxes, and common areas,” Lincoln added. “There are many more opportunities for contact than if they were living in a single-family home.”

Experts say personal history may make older Black Americans more reluctant to get tested for the virus and seek treatment.

“Some African Americans refuse to get tested because there is just very heightened suspicion about the test and if they’re being used as guinea pigs,” Lincoln said. “That mistrust and distrust is based both on how we’ve been treated historically by the healthcare profession and how we’re being treated currently.”

Lincoln says she worries how that mistrust will play out once a vaccine is available.

“Vaccinations are a huge concern. It’s going to be very, very difficult to get some of our most vulnerable citizens to get vaccinated,” she said. “It’s critically important given the higher prevalence of infection among African Americans and, more importantly, the higher death rate.”

“We will need to figure out the messaging. Not just what the message is, but who delivers it,” she added.

“Social isolation was already a big problem before the pandemic,” Kane-Williams said.

Many older Black Americans, she notes, depended on their church to get basic information.

“Most churches have not had services for months. It’s unprecedented, unprecedented in the African American community,” Kane-Williams said. “It has been devastating for older African Americans.”

Lincoln notes that only about 38 percent of older Black Americans have access to the internet.

“During this pandemic, we’re relying more and more on broadband access to communicate. It’s a way to stay on top of health information and even do telehealth visits with your doctor,” Lincoln explained.

And, she says, so many older Black Americans don’t have families they can depend on.

“Many older African Americans are less likely to be married and have children. There are 60-, 70-, and 80-year-olds that have never been married. It’s the highest proportion of any racial group in this country,” she said.

Tate says he often comes across older adults without families in his Hazel Runs.

“Some of them get cabin fever. When I arrive they’ll be sitting on the front porch,” he said. “So I’ll sit down a good distance from them, with my mask on, and we sit and just talk.”

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