The racial disparity among Mainers who have COVID-19 has widened over the past week.

Blacks and African Americans make up only 1.6 percent of Maine’s population but now account for at least 5.7 percent of the state’s COVID-19 cases.

In other words, coronavirus infections are hitting blacks and African Americans in Maine at nearly four times the rate one would expect. And that figure will likely grow, because the latest numbers don’t include most of the tests conducted after an outbreak at a Portland chicken processing plant where many immigrants work.

Of the 1,174 confirmed cases reported by Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention through Wednesday, 73 were people who identified themselves as black or African American. That’s 32 cases more than had been reported a week earlier, an increase of 78 percent.

Meanwhile, whites account for 66 percent of the cases in Maine but make up nearly 95 percent of the population. But the percentage of coronavirus-infected people who are white is likely much higher, because 302 who tested positive did not give their race.

(If you look at only those cases where the Maine CDC knows a person’s race and ethnicity, blacks and African Americans make up 7.7 percent of the total and whites make up 87 percent.)

However it is calculated, COVID-19 is hitting blacks and African Americans at higher rates across the country.

A paper published Thursday by the Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved found that as of April 17 that group accounted for 65 percent of the deaths in Louisiana despite making up 32 percent of the population. Blacks and African Americans make up 8 percent of the population in Wisconsin but account for 39 percent of the deaths.

Maine began releasing race and ethnicity information last week. At the time, blacks and African Americans comprised 3.7 percent of Maine’s total cases and 5.1 percent of the cases in which race and ethnicity were known.

Maine CDC spokesman Robert Long said in an email that race and ethnicity data released Wednesday does not include most of 51 cases detected at the Tyson Foods poultry processing plant in Portland, which employs many immigrants. Test results from more than 300 employees were received after the weekly racial breakdown was reported.

Unlike most other states, Maine is not providing county-level breakdowns of cases by race and ethnicity, nor is the state reporting racial breakdowns of deaths. Long said the state is working toward providing that information while protecting patient privacy.

It’s not clear what percentage of the COVID-19 cases among that group are concentrated in Cumberland and Androscoggin counties, which have higher percentages of blacks and African Americans than other counties in Maine, at 3 percent and 4.4 percent respectively, or what percentage of the deaths they account for.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, did not directly address the race and ethnicity information at his media briefings Wednesday or Thursday. But last week he said COVID-19 is hitting minorities hard because they often lack access to health care and hold jobs that put them at a greater risk of contracting the virus.

While discussing the COVID-19 outbreak at the Tyson plant, Shah noted that epidemiologists were conducting their investigation with medical translators to overcome language barriers and with an awareness of the “difficult socioeconomic situation” of many of the workers.

Nelida Berke, director of Portland’s minority health program, said outreach workers are providing cultural brokers to bridge the communication and cultural gaps between the immigrant community and state officials and the medical community. That work, she said, involves providing information in multiple languages about symptoms and where to go to get tested, and stressing the importance of social distancing.

“Social distancing is really, really challenging for everyone but especially for these communities,” said Berke. She pointed to her experience as an immigrant from Peru: “We like to touch. We like to stay close and hug.”

Abdulkerim Said, director and founder of the New Mainers Public Health Initiatives, a Lewiston nonprofit advocacy and education group, said many black and African-American Mainers work on the front lines as health care workers in nursing homes and private homes, as well as in grocery stores and warehouses, making them more likely to contract the virus.

While the state offers its recommendations for limiting the spread of the coronavirus and other information in different languages, Said said more needs to be done. That includes diversifying staff at the Maine CDC and among doctors, and conducting more testing among immigrants, who tend to have large families.

“If I see someone who looks like me I will be more comfortable to go and tell them what I need,” Said said. 

Kathy Kilrain del Rio, director of campaigns and health care advocacy at Maine Equal Justice, a nonprofit that advocates for solutions to poverty, health care, inequality and other issues, said her group has been working with the state to enroll people into MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program.

Kilrain del Rio would like to expand MaineCare to cover people who are ineligible because of a lack of immigration status, while strengthening safety net programs to ensure people have safe housing, well-paying jobs and comprehensive health care.

Kilrain del Rio said discussions about race and ethnicity are never easy, especially among immigrants who may not speak English well or completely trust governmental officials. She’d like the state to do more to train staff about ways to have those sensitive conversations and address any concerns that may arise.

While those may offer short-term solutions, Kilrain del Rio said, addressing systemic racism in the health care system nationally will take more time.

“There’s a lot we can do to help,” she said. “Some of those things are long term. But some of those things we can take action on today.”

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