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How the race gap in COVID-19 deaths flipped

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

At the beginning of the COVID pandemic, everyone from community leaders to civil rights groups to Trump's surgeon general warned that the virus was hitting some people harder than others. Racial disparities were particularly striking with Black people, especially in cities, dying at several times the rate of white people. But as the pandemic has gone on, that trend has reversed. According to reporters at The Washington Post, who took a close look at more than two years of data. It isn't just that fewer Black people were dying but that white people were also starting to die in an increasingly high rate, at some points surpassing the rate of death for Black and Latino people.

Akilah Johnson from The Washington Post was the lead reporter on this story, and she's here with us now to tell us more about it. Akilah Johnson, thanks so much for being here.

AKILAH JOHNSON: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So I read from your report that you started to notice things changing around the time that the delta variant peaked. Now, this was in September of 2021, which was a pretty pivotal time in that pandemic. Can you break down for us exactly what happened, why, at that particular point, the mortality rates not just converged but started to reverse?

JOHNSON: So my reporting partner and I, Dan Keating, started kind of fact-check some numbers that were coming out of the White House just after delta, right? So we're talking late October, early November that we're showing this huge drop in deaths overall in communities of color. And so we were like, myth-busing. You know, is this true? We hadn't heard this before. There was not a lot of kind of verification behind the number, just this big drop in numbers. And as we were looking at this and trying to find out the veracity of the numbers, we kept running them. And what we saw at the time is that the racial and ethnic gaps were narrowing, but they still existed.

And then comes omicron. And right before Christmas, we're kind of having a conference video call. And he ran the numbers one more time, and that's when we saw the lines cross - as omicron is, you know, kind of still surging. And we thought, oh, wow, is this going to be a sustained trend, or is this kind of a blip in the numbers? And so we just started to watch throughout omicron. But then when omicron left and went away, there was a flip, right? So once again, the Black death rate was lower than the white death rate. And we were like, oh, there is a there there. Now let's go figure out what exactly that is.

MARTIN: So tell me, what do you think, you know, happened here?

JOHNSON: You know, there's some research from Ohio State that was showing that Black and white people were about equally hesitant when the vaccine first came out. But there were differences. You know, for Black people and communities of color, there's a lot of distrust and mistrust at the hands of the medical system. Black people were able to overcome that hesitancy faster than their white counterparts were, and a lot of it had to do with the messaging.

Churches and community groups were like, we need to do this to keep everybody safe. This pandemic is just cutting these deep gulfs through our community. We need to get vaxed. We need to stay masked because we need to keep our elders safe. We need to keep our communities safe. That message resonated more quickly, and Black people overcame their hesitancy faster than white people as a result of that. And so there was an evening out of what you saw in terms of the disparities in vaccination rates, right? And so right now, the group that remains most likely to be unvaccinated are Republicans. And the majority of the Republican base are white people.

MARTIN: Is it that people still don't see enough people in their community affected negatively by COVID, that they don't take it as seriously? Can you - you see what I'm saying? Why is it that these same measures aren't taking hold?

JOHNSON: Well, you know, so we spoke to folks who researched this type of stuff - you know, folks who research white racial politics, social epidemiologists. And there is a long history of this idea that somehow doing things that are going to target disenfranchised groups inherently infringes on the rights of white people, right? So this is where you get into kind of the states' rights argument. And it goes back to - I mean, we're talking reconstruction era. And so it begins to be this idea that the government can't tell me what to do. So mitigation strategies, vaccine mandates, mask mandates, stay-at-home orders - those begin to be seen as infringements on individual rights. And as some, you know, researchers pointed out, the calculus in white communities was just different. The calculus was not necessarily about what the vaccine can do, but it was about the ability to be able to make that choice.

MARTIN: You mention Dr. Jonathan Metzl, his - it's a 2019 book called "Dying Of Whiteness: How The Politics Of Racial Resentment Is Killing America's Heartland." I think some people who haven't read your reporting yet might wonder, what does racial resentment have to do with this? Tell us what he told you.

JOHNSON: One of the really interesting things that he did is he did these focus groups in middle Tennessee of Black and white men, age 20 to 60, where he was talking to them about health. And, you know, he said that in most instances, they expressed very similar situations in terms of frustrations with health care, stressors trying to access health care. But there was this huge divergence when it came to questions of government and health care and government's role in maintaining or supporting people's health and well-being.

And what he found in these focus groups were that the Black men in these focus groups used the language of us when talking about health care. It was very common good - whereas the white men and the focus groups, he says, unthinkingly, went to conversations of them. So it was like a cost to be paid for other people versus a cost to be paid for all of us.

And you know, what Dr. Metzl talks about is how ideologically driven these decisions are when it comes to decisions of health and how, you know, he saw, when the public health care infrastructure started talking about masks and vaccines from a very data-oriented kind of numbers game, but at the end of the day, it still came down to government trying to tell you what to do with your health. And ideologically, particularly for Republicans, researchers say that message just doesn't resonate. And the folks that I spoke to, you know, in my reporting were willing to die before they let the government tell them what to do with their health. And in some instances, they did.

MARTIN: Based on your reporting. Do you feel comfortable saying what we might see, come this winter? Do you see these this racial disparity widening again with white people being more likely to be vulnerable?

JOHNSON: You know, it's interesting 'cause what our reporting showed is that during surges - so during delta and during omicron, when resources are strapped, when hospitals are most strained, the Black death rate eclipses the white death rate, right? So that speaks to who has access to what hospitals and who has access to what resources, ultimately. So if we are going into yet another surge, what the previous surges have told us is that the Black death rates will eclipse. They'll go back up. They'll jump above the white death rate. The structural barriers and the structural issues haven't disappeared. The things that were making and contributing to the growth disproportionate of death at the beginning of the pandemic - many of those situations remain. And so when you have a surge and resources are strapped, that's when those differences and those deficits really are felt most with deadly consequences.

MARTIN: That was Washington Post reporter Akilah Johnson. We're talking about her article, which she reported along with Dan Keating, titled "Whites Now More Likely To Die From COVID Than Blacks: Why The Pandemic Shifted." Akilah Johnson, thanks so much for joining us and sharing this reporting with us.

JOHNSON: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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