Lafayette Parish COVID-19 cases are concentrated in majority African-American areas

Andrew Capps
Lafayette Daily Advertiser

When the novel coronavirus spread in Lafayette Parish, the disease hit African American areas hard.

North Lafayette, where 75% of residents are African-American, has a much higher rate of COVID-19 cases per capita than any other part of Lafayette Parish, according to newly released data from the Louisiana Department of Health.

Cases of the virus are twice as prevalent there, as the 34,000 person area has reported 2.1 infections for every 1,000 residents. Certain parts of North Lafayette, like the area around Dorsey Park, are seeing even higher rates of infection.

Meanwhile, majority white areas account for a greater total of cases, but also have a much larger total population. Those areas have a combined 0.95 cases of coronavirus per capita, less than half the rate seen in majority black parts of the parish.

Majority African-American areas in Lafayette Parish account for just 14% of the parish population, but so far they have reported 27% of the parish’s COVID-19 cases, according to the state health data.

While the state health department has not released details about deaths in the parish, the infection data reveals a dramatic disparity in cases between the parish’s majority black and majority white areas.

But mostly COVID-19's disproportionate impact on Lafayette's African American community underscores historic health disparities that have always existed, local and state leaders said.

"When this virus first started, it wasn’t brought to anyone’s attention that the black community were the ones that were affected more than any other race," said Lafayette City Councilman Pat Lewis, whose district includes many of the hardest hit African American areas.

"This problem has been going on for many, many years, but it took the coronavirus for people to realize what’s going on in the black community," Lewis said.

Louisiana was the first state to identify COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on African Americans. In a state where African Americans make up about 33% of the population, more than 56% of the people killed by the virus are African American.

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“Obviously that is a real issue,” Gov. John Bel Edwards said Friday after meeting with a special group he formed to study the problem, the COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force.

Edwards said it’s clear historic disparities in health care for minorities is one of the major problems, a concern he has charged the task force to address.

“I pray that never do our health disparities get exposed again the way it’s happening with this particular pandemic because this exposure for too many people means death,” Edwards said.

The state Department of Health hasn't yet released racial demographics for deaths in Lafayette Parish, limiting local understandings of how the virus is impacting the African-American community here.

But information about confirmed infections shows a similar racial disparity.

Lafayette Parish is divided into 42 census tracts that roughly follow roads and neighborhoods, which the state health agency used to more accurately report where cases are located.

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Those areas have between 1,800 and 16,000 residents, based on 2018 data from the U.S. Census Bureau, so comparing one area’s total cases to another’s leads to a misleading juxtaposition.

But accounting for the size of those populations shows a clearer picture of the virus’ spread across the parish and reveals a stark racial disparity.

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The lack of detail, including racial makeup, for COVID-19 deaths in Lafayette has been a source of frustration for local officials trying to find ways to mitigate its spread here.

The Rev. Carlos Harvin, chief of minority affairs for Lafayette Consolidated Government and leader of the local government’s new Health Equity Commission, said that without information about what share of Lafayette Parish’s 17 deaths and 439 cases are African-Americans, local officials are “in the dark.”

But officials are working to increase testing in black communities, he said.

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“While we’re waiting for that number to come out, we’re ramping up the number of test sites that are available in the communities most affected by the coronavirus where the projection is that more people are likely to die because of those underlying health conditions,” Harvin said.

Lafayette mayor-president candidate Carlos Harvin speaks at a One Acadiana forum for the mayor president candidates on Sept. 18.

One of those sites is the SWLA Center for Health Services, which is operating a free walk-up and drive-thru testing site at its facility at 500 Patterson Street that is capable of testing about 100 people a week, according to CEO JayVon Muhammad.

Muhammad noted the disparity in per capita cases is likely not a function of more widespread testing among African-Americans. He said patients at the center’s facilities in Lake Charles and Lafayette have reported being denied testing because their symptoms and potential exposures to the virus weren’t taken seriously.

“Our people are coming to us and saying they’ve tried to be tested at two facilities or three places and no one would test them, and we end up being the people who do test them,” she said.

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Muhammad also said understanding the disparity in the virus’ spread among African-Americans is dependent on understanding the different exposure levels that they might have to the virus’ carriers.

“You have to look at it based on the opportunities to catch it, so where people are, how they live, where they work,” Muhammad said.

“Many times in African-American households, there are more people that live in a household, so there’s not one person to a room, or sometimes there’s multiple families in a household. That makes it kind of difficult to be a safe distance away from one another. We often work in the service industry, so for some, but not all, the opportunities to come into contact with COVID-19 are more prevalent.”

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