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Racial Breakdown Of NYC's COVID-19 Cases Necessary To Track The Pandemic's Inequities

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Concerned that New York City's communities of color are being disproportionately exposed to the deadly COVID-19 virus, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams has asked the de Blasio administration to turn over data breaking down coronavirus cases by race.

“What it appears is that, as usual, certain communities are gonna get hit hard and that doesn't have to be to the degree that it is,” Williams told Gothamist. "But we want to have data to be able to back that up and to have accountability as we're moving forward to make people acknowledge it so we can make better decisions."

In a letter sent on Friday to the Health Department Commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot, Williams referenced a map that was recently released by the DOH showing that zip codes home to low-income neighborhoods—often homes to communities of color—have seen high rates of COVID-19 cases.

The working-class Bronx neighborhood of Wakefield, for instance, has been hit hard by the coronavirus, with 304 of 556 people testing positive for the virus. According to census figures, the neighborhood is 58 percent African American, 17 percent Hispanic, and 15 percent white.

Williams said that communities of color are “overrepresented in essential occupations, including grocery store workers, laundromat workers, healthcare workers, and emergency responders,” who cannot afford to stay at home, and must do their jobs for society to function. Given their level of exposure, Williams argued that they are more susceptible to catching the disease than affluent New Yorkers, and that their coronavirus testing should be prioritized.

"Our picture of which communities are most impacted by COVID-19 is obscured by the fact that, due to the lack of available tests, our current numbers underrepresent how many people are sick," Williams wrote in his letter.

The virus has so far infected nearly 50,000 people in the five boroughs and killed more than 1,500 people.

Last week, Williams called for a full lockdown of New York City, including restricting residents to their respective neighborhoods and shutting down parks (Governor Andrew Cuomo has since ordered playgrounds to temporarily close). "We may have to get to a point right now where the whole city should shut down for a week," said Williams.

A DOH spokesperson did not return a request for comment. The de Blasio administration was slow to release the zip code-level data.

The New York Times, using cell phone data collected by Cuebiq, reported that the residents living in affluent neighborhoods are staying put in their homes compared to high-poverty neighborhoods where residents have been moving with comparably higher frequency. The paper also showed that Manhattan, where the median income is around $80,000, saw a 75 percent decrease in subway ridership since non-essential New Yorkers have been ordered indoors, while the Bronx, which has a median income of $38,000, saw a decrease of around 55 percent.

"By the time you're down to Union Square it's somewhat reasonable, but when you're up in those higher places you're packed like sardines," a nanny from the Bronx told Gothamist earlier this week, describing her dangerously crowded commute. "The poor people are doing all the work."

Across the country, black communities have disproportionately impacted by the virus. In Milwaukee County, Wisconsin—one of a handful of counties tracking racial breakdown of coronavirus cases—African Americans comprise of half of the 945 coronavirus cases and 81 percent of its deaths, according to ProPublica. And in Michigan, 35 percent of coronavirus cases and 40 percent of coronavirus-related deaths come from African Americans, despite the demographic making up 14 percent of the state’s population.

Five congressional members, including former Democratic presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren, have asked U.S. Department of Health and Human Service Secretary Alex Azar to release racial breakdown of coronavirus patients.

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