News Brief: African Americans' Death Rate, Navy Hospital, Wuhan Reopens

Apr 8, 2020
Originally published on April 8, 2020 9:58 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

Some early data suggests that black Americans are dying from COVID-19 at higher rates than other groups.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Yeah, that's right. These concerns over this disparity were highlighted in a White House briefing yesterday. Here's White House coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx speaking yesterday.

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DEBORAH BIRX: We don't want to give the impression that the African American community is more susceptible to the virus. We don't have any data that suggests that. What our data suggests is they're more susceptible to more difficult and severe disease and poorer outcomes.

KING: NPR science correspondent Nell Greenfieldboyce has been looking into what's going on here. Good morning, Nell.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: How is this virus affecting black communities here in the U.S.?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, we don't have all the data we'd like to have. So at the national level, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hasn't been breaking things down in terms of race, you know, when you look at who tests positive or who's hospitalized or who dies. In New York City, also, where there's a lot of infections, officials have promised to release data on race within days, but we don't have that yet. What we can say, though, is there are some states that are giving out information that's concerning. So, for example, in Louisiana, there have been more than 500 deaths so far, and the majority of them are African Americans. The governor of Louisiana has said that 70% of the people who died are black while only 32% of the state's population is black. And then in Michigan, 33% of the cases are African American and 40% of the deaths, and that's in a state where blacks make up only 14% of the population. So - and then we have Chicago, where about 68% of the city's deaths have been African Americans while they only make up about 30% of the city's population.

KING: All right. So you're saying we don't have all of the numbers, but the numbers that we do have are pretty troubling. Why would one racial group be more affected by COVID-19?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: So the members of the Coronavirus Task Force say it probably comes down to medical conditions that disproportionately affect African Americans. We know that there are medical conditions that lead to bad outcomes when people get this virus. Here's how Anthony Fauci put it last night.

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ANTHONY FAUCI: When they do get infected, their underlying medical conditions - the diabetes, the hypertension, the asthma - those are the kind of things that wind them up in the ICU and ultimately give them a higher death rate.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Studies have shown that there are real, unfair differences related to health in this country. I mean, people of color are less likely to have access to quality health care when they get sick. They're less likely to get routine preventive care. And there is a lot of social and economic things that go into that. Dr. Fauci said it kind of reminded him a bit of HIV, which he spent his career working on. It hit the gay community and brought attention to discrimination against gay people. He said coronavirus is shining a light on the inequality in health right now for African Americans.

KING: So now that the light is being shown, did the task force say the federal government's going to do anything about this?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: One thing they promised was better information on this very quickly. President Trump said they'd probably have statistics at the national level in the next few days. For example, they would be looking at Medicare data to see if coronavirus infections were related to race and preexisting conditions. But Dr. Fauci said these underlying disparities need to be fixed.

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FAUCI: So when all this is over and, as we've said, it will end, we will get over coronavirus, but there will still be health disparities, which we really do need to address in the African American community.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: So the roots of those disparities are deep and, you know, it probably will take some time, but they are, he said, unacceptable.

KING: NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce. Thanks, Nell.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Thank you.

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KING: The USNS Comfort, a Navy hospital ship, arrived in New York last Monday.

GREENE: That's right. You've got about a thousand hospital beds on this ship, and the ship was supposed to ease the pressure on New York City's hospitals by taking on patients with conditions other than COVID-19. The problem here was it just didn't end up with many patients on board because of these strict admission guidelines and also because there just weren't that many people being hospitalized for things other than this virus. And so President Trump has now changed the ship's mission, announcing on Monday that it would accept COVID-19 patients.

KING: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman has been following this one. Good morning, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: So the ship's mission has changed. Where do things stand now?

BOWMAN: Well, as far as we know, this all came from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who spoke with President Trump about getting COVID-positive patients aboard the Comfort. Now, initially, as you say, the Pentagon said the ship would only be used for non-COVID to get the overflow from hospitals of patients not testing positive. Cuomo says between the field - military field hospitals set up at the Javits Center and the Comfort, there will be some 3,000 beds. Before this, both the Comfort and the emergency hospital at the Javits Center had been largely empty. Comfort currently has 41 patients, five of whom have tested positive for COVID. Javits has 60 patients, all with COVID now. And I should add, Noel, the Comfort has a sister ship at the Port of Los Angeles. That ship, the Mercy, also has 1,000 beds. There are currently some 11 patients on board. It, too, could take on COVID patients, but there are no immediate plans to do so at this point.

KING: Tom, how are people getting from the hospital on to the ship? That sounds like a process.

BOWMAN: It is. And U.S. military officials point out that New York patients must give consent before being transferred to the hospital ship or the Javits Center. Officials say they're putting together a pamphlet for hospitals explaining all this and to know what to expect. So it's not clear how many patients would want to make the move. So that could be a hurdle if people simply just don't want to go.

KING: That's very interesting. Tom, this is a Navy ship, and this is all happening as the Navy is dealing with a fiasco over some firings and some resignations. Explain what's going on there.

BOWMAN: Right. This has been going on for the past week. The acting Navy secretary, Thomas Modly, resigned yesterday. Officials say he was not forced and it - this all began with an outbreak of coronavirus aboard the carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt. Modly abruptly relieved the captain, who said the Navy wasn't doing enough to help the ship, and the captain sent an angry email letter about all that to more than 20 people, some outside the chain of command. Modly then flew out to Guam and told the crew that Captain Brett Crozier was either stupid or naive to send the letter so widely. At first, Modly stood by his comments and then the next day apologized, then resigned. Modly will be replaced by Jim McPherson, a former vice admiral and current undersecretary of the Army.

KING: Just quickly, how is the crew of that ship doing?

BOWMAN: Well, they're still being tested. More than three-quarters of the ship has been tested. About 200 tested positive, but so far for the virus, no one has been hospitalized.

KING: OK. That's some good news. Tom Bowman, thanks so much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

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KING: All right. In Wuhan, China, where the virus first emerged, people lived under lockdown for 76 days.

GREENE: That's right. The city was sealed off in late January to try and contain this outbreak. But starting today, the 11 million residents of Wuhan are finally able to leave. China says it has this outbreak under control.

KING: NPR's Emily Feng is in Wuhan. She is with us now. Good morning, Emily.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: What is it like there?

FENG: There is a sense of celebration in the air, and I felt it, too. I mean, I'm excited to see people leave. It's my first time here in the city since the outbreak, and it's been really heartening to see some life return to streets after covering this story for so long. But for a lot of people who were here in the city for the duration of the outbreak, today was a really bittersweet moment. They'd spent more than two months enduring fear of getting sick themselves or passing it on to other people. And they just didn't know what the future might hold. NPR spoke to one woman, Bi Shue (ph), who was at the Wuhan airport today. They just started running a limited number of flights. She was so excited to leave. She arrived at midnight when the airport reopened, even though her flight's at 3 p.m. today.

KING: Wow.

FENG: She had come to Wuhan for a vacation and then found herself stuck in this nightmare.

BI SHUE: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: She's saying I can't wait to get home. I've been crying a lot in the last few days, but I can't tell if they're tears of joy. She feels like she's escaping this purgatory, and she's seen so much suffering, and she's just glad to have made it through. Other people we spoke to had been separated for weeks from other family members in neighboring cities and many were returning to work because they had lost months of pay during the outbreak.

KING: OK. So that's what's happening in Wuhan, but there are still quarantine measures in other parts of China. This is a huge country. Will they be lifted also?

FENG: No, and even in Wuhan, lockdown measures are still in place, so they can leave the city, but it's still very hard to leave people's residential compounds. So the streets today were actually pretty quiet except around transport hubs because people are still being told do not leave your homes unless it's for an urgent matter. If you do leave your home, you have to scan this government-sanctioned app that traces whether you've been in contact with a sick person or traveled to a high - risk area recently. And many compounds still limit their residents to leaving for only two hours at a time. Residents here told us this lockdown is a sign of hope, but it's not the end. It's just the beginning of a long recovery process that will include bouncing back from an economic slowdown and also recovering from this emotional toll of living under a lockdown for more than two months.

KING: You know, Emily, U.S. officials have said that they think China is undercounting the number of cases. Is there worry about a second wave of infections?

FENG: There is, and that's because of something called asymptomatic cases, people who carry the virus but are not showing symptoms. Most people who left Wuhan today did not have to get tested for the virus. They may when they reach their destination, but a state official earlier this month said there could be 10,000 to 20,000 such asymptomatic cases in Wuhan alone. That means there are likely people traveling today in China with the virus in their body.

KING: OK. A lot of this is still wait and see. Emily Feng in Wuhan, China, this morning. Thanks, Emily.

FENG: Thanks, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.