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ProPublica Report On Chicago's Dramatic COVID-19 Health Disparities


It's become clear that some groups have been hit harder by COVID-19 than others, but why? The explanations so far have come back to underlying health conditions or close living quarters. Still, a reporting team at ProPublica Illinois, a nonprofit reporting consortium, wanted to know if there's more to it than the obvious. So they did a deep dive into the lives of the first 100 people to die from COVID-19 in Chicago, with a particular focus on why 70% were African American, and this in a city that's only 30% black. Duaa Eldeib was the lead reporter for that story. When we spoke with her, she started by telling us about a 48-year-old man, Phillip Thomas, who, despite having diabetes, was told to stay home by his doctor when he started feeling ill. And then one day, his symptoms got really bad.

DUAA ELDEIB: And his family told him, look, Phillip, you should go to the emergency room. But he didn't go. He said, no, the doctor told me to stay home. I'm going to stay home. And then after a couple of days, he, you know, they called an ambulance. And he went to a neighborhood hospital where he was intubated. And he died two days later. And so his story, I think, is really heartbreaking because it shows that while people were trying to follow the guidance that was given to them, it was not tailored for them. It did not encourage them to go to the hospital. And they're waiting until their symptoms were really serious and severe and going to the hospital. And one of the doctors that we spoke to said that's why she was seeing African American and Latinx patients coming in sicker and later in the process.

MARTIN: So they were getting this one-size-fits-all guidance that actually didn't make sense for that particular group of patients, right? So the overall guidance that the CDC was giving, that might have been fine for the general population, but it was absolutely not fine for this group of people.

ELDEIB: That's absolutely right.

MARTIN: Another person whose life you reported on was Larry Arnold, who was 70 years old. When he became sick, he knew he was sick. He had a fever of over 100. But he insisted on being taken to a hospital that was, like - what? - miles away. What did his story tell you?

ELDEIB: Most of the people who - of the first 100 who died lived on the South and West Sides of Chicago. And they're served by safety net hospitals. So these are hospitals that serve a large portion of low income and uninsured patients regardless of their ability to pay. And because of that, the consensus in the community is that they don't have the resources to actually (ph) treat their patients.

MARTIN: But what - your piece makes the point that there were specific things that actually could have been done, like specific messaging that would have reached these - this particular community in a way that could have saved lives. Given that this did happen fast, I mean, could these things really have been tweaked in real time to address these problems?

ELDEIB: That's a really good question. It wasn't a surprise, as tragic as it was, to see that, you know, 70 of the first 100 were African Americans and were in these neighborhoods. It wasn't really a shock to anybody in Chicago because we know what those communities look like in terms of, you know, health conditions in terms of access to health care. And so I think there is a question as to whether or not things could have been done sooner. That said, like you said, it happened so quickly. This moved - this virus just moved and ravaged these communities so quickly. And so it's, you know, it's a lot easier to be a Monday morning quarterback than to really be on the ground, you know, two months ago.

MARTIN: That was Duaa Eldeib. She was lead reporter on the piece we've been talking about from ProPublica Illinois. It's titled "The First 100: COVID-19 Took Black Lives First. It Didn't Have To." Duaa Eldeib, Thanks so much for talking to us.

ELDEIB: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.