Black people and other people of color are bearing a disproportionate impact of the novel coronavirus in Eau Claire County, according to county case data, mirroring the same phenomenon across the state.

Chippewa Valley health experts say COVID-19 affecting more people of color is fueled by systematic inequality, including substandard housing and less access to health care.

“We do know race and ethnicity does make a difference for people, entirely because of social constructs, not because of anything being different about the disease in those individuals,” said Lieske Giese, director of the Eau Claire City-County Health Department, on Wednesday.

As of Friday, 79% of the county’s COVID-19 cases were white people, according to case data released by the Health Department. White people make up 92% of the county’s population, according to census data.

People of color are overrepresented in COVID-19 cases in the county, in some cases two or three times over.

Asian or Pacific Islander people are 4.5% of the county’s population, but make up 8% of the county’s cases. Black people are 1.2% of the population, but are 3% of cases; people of Hispanic or Latino ethnicity are 2.6% of the population but are 8% of cases, according to county and census data.

‘It is a crisis’

Race disparity in COVID-19 cases — and deaths — is also emerging statewide and nationwide.

In Wisconsin, about 13% of the population is non-white, according to census data. But 35% of Wisconsin residents with COVID-19 are non-white, and 29% of those who have died in the state of COVID-19 are non-white, according to state case data.

The virus’ spread in Milwaukee has offered perhaps the most dramatic demonstration of racial disparities. As of late May, a third of all confirmed coronavirus cases in Milwaukee County involved patients who identified as Latino or Hispanic, while Latinos make up only about 15% of the county’s population, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported.

“Race has made a difference in this disease ... not because the color of someone’s skin makes someone more susceptible to a disease, including COVID-19, but because of conditions of racism that affect our state and community,” Giese said.

People of color may only be able to access “substandard housing that makes it difficult for people to maintain distance needed,” Giese said. “They may be working in jobs at lower income levels and in places where distance becomes very difficult.”

“It’s one reason why we talk a lot in public health about racism being a public health issue,” she added.

COVID-19 isn’t creating the racial inequalities in Wisconsin — it’s exposing them, said Alia Stevenson, chief programs officer at the Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness in Madison.

People of color having worse health outcomes is the result of “historical and generational oppression, compounding stress, and systematic racism,” Stevenson said in an email to the Leader-Telegram.

That people of color in Eau Claire County are being disproportionately impacted by the virus is no surprise to Pamela Guthman, a clinical assistant professor of nursing at UW-Eau Claire, who worked with an effort that resulted in the Wisconsin Public Health Association declaring racism a public health crisis in Wisconsin.

“I’m not surprised at all,” Guthman said. “Structural racism is embedded in every single system, and certainly in health care ... you’re seeing how those inequities and disparities play out here in Eau Claire County.”

It’s not just COVID-19, Guthman said, but people of color have worse health outcomes than white people in many areas. Black women are two to six times more likely to die from pregnancy complications than white women, and black men are twice as likely to be killed by police than white men, studies indicate.

“It is a crisis. And when we don’t address it, we will continue to see the inequities and disparities that have reared their ugly heads in regard to COVID-19,” Guthman said. “But the disparities and inequities for our people of color have been around for a while.”

To confront it, communities need to listen to people of color and figure out what city, county or statewide policies are creating housing and health care inequality, Guthman said.

“We wonder why asthma rates and cardiovascular diseases are increased in people of color,” she said. “Oftentimes they’re in jobs that don’t have sick time. They may not have equitable health care benefits, so they put off going to a doctor for preventative care. All those things are so wrapped up, but we have to first of all center their voices. They should be up front.”

Contact: 715-833-9206, sarah.seifert@ecpc.com, @sarahaseifert on Twitter

Sarah Seifert is the Leader-Telegram's education and health reporter. She's worked as a journalist in the Chippewa Valley since 2017 and joined the L-T in 2019. Get in touch at sarah.seifert@ecpc.com or on Twitter at @sarahaseifert.