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AUGUSTA, Maine — Black and African-American people account for 5 percent of coronavirus cases in which racial information is disclosed in Maine despite making up only 1.6 percent of the population, suggesting that racial disparities seen in other states also exist here.
The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention released data on the race and ethnicity of individuals infected with coronavirus on Wednesday. Racial information is available for 76 percent of the state’s 1,056 coronavirus cases as of that day. It was released for the first time on Wednesday after a request from the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, though a spokesperson for the agency said the data preparation had begun prior to the organization’s request.
Maine CDC Director Nirav Shah has cautioned that individuals diagnosed with the virus are not required to provide full demographic information to the state. Among cases where information on race is available, black and African-American Mainers make up 5 percent of cases, more than three times what would be expected given by their population share in the state.
The data provided by the Maine CDC only show the racial breakdown of coronavirus cases, not of deaths in the state. The racial breakdown mirrors some trends seen in other states.
Shah said Thursday that the representation shown in the data was “deeply concerning.” He said that several factors likely contributed to the disparity, including that racial minorities are more likely to work in frontline jobs and less likely to have access to health insurance. Another report by the Kaiser Family Foundation earlier this month cited similar issues at the likely causes of racial disparities nationally.
The Maine CDC has also reached out to representatives of immigrant communities, Shah said, citing the need to “remove roadblocks” to health care access for new Mainers.
An analysis by American Public Media earlier this week based on states that had already released racial data found that the mortality rate for black residents from coronavirus was 2.8 times as high as that of white residents. In some states, such as Kansas and Wisconsin, black Americans were seven times more likely to die from coronavirus than their white counterparts.
“Some people think Maine is exempt from racial disparities or racial equity issues because we have less people of color than other states,” said Kathy Kilrain del Rio, who directs health care advocacy at Maine Equal Justice. “There is no place that is exempt from these issues.”
Geographic differences within Maine might explain some of the disparities, but not the full extent. Black Mainers are mostly concentrated in Androscoggin and Cumberland counties, where they respectively make up 4.4 percent and 3.1 percent of the population, according to census data. Cumberland County has been hit hardest by the virus, accounting for 44 percent of known cases and half of deaths in the state as of Thursday.
The racial disparities seen with coronavirus are an extension of existing inequities in Maine, Kilrain del Rio said, noting that people living in poverty or who lacked health insurance were more likely to develop health conditions that might then make them more susceptible to the virus. Many of those people also held frontline jobs as grocery store workers or direct care aides, she said.
“We know that our public health is only as strong as the most vulnerable people in our community,” Kilrain del Rio said. “As long as we ignore certain people in our community, we’re all more at risk. So thinking about these disparities, thinking about equity protects all of us.”