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African Americans twice as likely as whites to die from COVID-19 in Marion County
As president of a neighborhood association, Linda Ellis gets to meet a lot of people in her community and develop relationships.

During a time like this, though, that also means getting a front-row seat to the devastation caused by COVID-19.

Ellis is president of the Northwest Neighborhood Planning Development Corporation and knows of at least seven deaths in the 46208 zip code, which surrounds Crown Hill Cemetery and stretches as far north as 64th Street.

Nearly half of the residents are Black, and median income is about three-fifths of what it is in the rest of the state, according to census data.

"I feel that we've been neglected," Ellis said. "... This virus is nothing new. It's just uncovering the lack of resources and health care."

African American residents in Marion County are almost twice as likely than whites to die from COVID-19, according to data released by the Marion County Public Health Department on April 20.

African Americans are also three times as likely as whites to have a confirmed case of COVID-19 and 2 1/2 times as likely to be hospitalized.

The county health department also released data about age and gender. It did not include raw numbers, only rates based on population size.

For example, 20 African Americans have died per 100,000 African

American residents. That's compared to 11 whites per 100,000 white residents.

Many in the medical community have pointed to preexisting health conditions — hypertension, asthma, heart disease, etc. — as a reason why African Americans are disproportionately harmed by COVID-19, but there's more to it than that.

African Americans are more likely to have a job that doesn't allow them to work from home, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

African Americans are also insured at a lower rate than whites, an issue made worse right now by a health care system in which more than half of Hoosiers get employer-sponsored coverage, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Add in transportation, access to healthy food and any number of other issues, and African American communities across Indianapolis had good reason to expect a dreadful outcome.

"Obviously, people in poverty are gonna be the last to be tested," said Teddrick Hardy, who has been helping Haughville residents afford groceries and medication during the pandemic. Hardy said he's been lucky so far to not come across anyone whose life was in danger because of the virus.

Ellis said her biggest request right now is to get mobile testing sites in her area. Testing has expanded since the start of the pandemic, but it's still limited.

Dr. Virginia Caine, director of the county health department, said in an interview medical racism is also a factor. She suggested providers receive ongoing training about the impact of social determinants such as where you live and what kind of economic opportunities you have.

The minimum wage hasn't gone up in years, and those who do have health insurance might be on a plan they effectively can't use because the deductible is so high. These are issues some providers don't account for and then wonder why patients aren't following their recommendations.

"They don't live in that world," Caine said. "They base a lot of their assumptions on what resources they have, not what their client may have."

It's not a problem with every provider and facility, Caine said, but it's certainly prevalent enough to be an issue.

In Detroit, for example, an African American man died in his chair at home from complications with COVID-19 after three hospitals turned him away when he complained about breathing difficulties and requested a test.

Gina Fears, assistant director of recovery and community services at Public Advocates in Community re-Entry (PACE), said this is also an especially difficult time for those going through addiction recovery.

It's difficult for staff at PACE and other organizations to maintain contact with people and make sure they have what they need because offices are closed for the most part, and many professionals, including Fears, have been working remotely.

Fears got a call recently about a man who was mugged overnight and had his money and medication stolen. He's not sure if he can go back to where he was living.

What's more, Fears said, the place the man is staying has had a high number of people who tested positive for the virus.

This is the kind of situation that adds even more stress to an already burdensome recovery process.

"When we think of people that are just in a daily crisis with addictions or mental health issues, then this is the kind of stuff that's going on around them," she said.

Gina Lewis Alexander is vice president of Hopeside Senior Communities, which offers housing for low-income seniors, and said it's been troubling to watch the toll the coronavirus has had on the elderly residents, most of whom are African American.

One resident lost her daughter in Chicago to the virus and is "totally depressed," Alexander said. She hardly comes out of her apartment and doesn't answer the door.

"Anything that threatens life can be dramatic to the elderly," said Alexander, who is also first vice president of One Voice Martindale Brightwood. "... It creates a whole life or culture of fear."

The new data for Marion County is part of a nationwide trend showing COVID-19 is disproportionately harming African Americans.

In Marion County, African Americans are hospitalized at a rate of 106 per 100,000, compared to 43 per 100,000 for whites. The rate of confirmed cases for African Americans is 290 per 100,000, compared to 97 per 100,000 for whites.

Information about race was not available for 37% of confirmed cases and 17% of deaths included in the data. A release from the county health department said the missing data is not significant enough to reverse the disparity.

Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.


One house, five people — all (likely) had COVID-19

Gene Murray was on his third dose of antibiotics, trying to get rid of a cough, headache, fever and other symptoms that were piling on.

It was March 17, two weeks after Murray first developed a cough.

His wife, Alicia, found him in the bed about an hour after Gene said he was going to shower. He was struggling to breathe.

Alicia had already distanced herself from social media and the news because it was too much to see the toll of COVID-19. Now, here was her husband, an otherwise healthy 48-year-old father of three, knocked off of his feet.

"Are you scared?" Alicia asked him.

He said yes.

"Being afraid at home is not gonna do any of us any good," she told him.

Alicia drove Gene to the emergency room at St. Vincent, where he got the antibiotics from a virtual visit with a doctor.

He was tested for COVID-19 but didn't get the result back until March 27. It was positive.

Gene, who is an engineer, was hospitalized after his ER visit for four days. Doctors told him to assume he had the virus while he waited for the test to come back, and that everyone else in his house also had it.

Looking back, it makes sense that everyone else had the virus at some point.

Sydney, the Murrays' middle daughter, was the first in the house to show symptoms, starting March 13. It was the first day North Central High School, where she goes to school, was closed.

The Friday before, Sydney and hundreds of other students and fans were at Lawrence Central High School for boys basketball sectional games. In the weeks following, at least five people who were at the gym died from complications with COVID-19, according to an article by Kyle Neddenriep of IndyStar.

Sydney, 16, said she had a fever that went up and down, developed a bad cough, and her chest was tight. Her lungs made a "gurgling sound."

But Sydney, like her mother and two sisters, has sinus and allergy issues. Many of the symptoms of COVID-19 could easily be mistaken for a sinus infection.

Alicia had a cough she couldn't control and thought it was just "the worst head cold in the world" — until it became obvious that everyone was likely dealing with something beyond the normal cold or sinus infection.

"Everything kind of made sense that it would be something else," she said. The silver lining for the Murrays was that everyone was able to isolate together. Alicia initially made plans for everyone to stay in different parts of the house, but that turned about to be unnecessary since everyone was told to just assume they were infected.

The Murrays' youngest daughter, 11-year-old London, has severe asthma, and 19-year-old Lauren seems to develop bronchitis every time she gets a cold.

But it was Gene who developed the worst of the symptoms.

"I just wanted to lay around and sleep all day," he said. "I didn't have any energy to do anything else."

Gene, who is also a volleyball coach, began working from home shortly after developing his symptoms. That means there's a possibility he spread it to coworkers when he was asymptomatic, but Gene said he has stayed in touch with others at his workplace and hasn't learned of anyone else getting sick.

Any other time, a whole household falling ill to the same mysterious virus — with one going to the hospital for four days — would be an anomaly.

But the Murrays represent just one anecdote in a growing landscape of African American families who are contracting COVID-19.

The Indiana State Department of Health says African Americans represent 16.9% of cases and 17.5% of deaths across the state, close to double their share of the population.

In Marion County, African Americans make up 42% of deaths, according to county health department data, but they're only 29% of the population.

"It's disturbing in a lot of ways," Gene said. "... You can't live by 'it won't happen to me' because it's happening to us at an alarming rate."

Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.


Advocates want Indiana prisoners released amid COVID-19 fears

Rev. Mmoja Ajabu has been advocating for better conditions for Indiana inmates for years, but his cause is more urgent in the wake of COVID-19. As a man of faith, he said his advocacy stems from "serving a God of justice." But, it's also personal.

Ajabu's son is currently serving a life sentence at Wabash Valley Correctional Facility. Earlier this month, Ajabu's sister and brother-in-law died of complications related to COVID-19. Now, Ajabu is worried his son is at risk of contracting the virus if inmates aren't released to help flatten the curve.

"I'm concerned about everybody," he said, "but when you talk about my son, obviously my concern for him is greater. That doesn't minimize my concern for everyone else. I just want humans to be humane towards other humans. If we're all in this together, let's be humane."

Ajabu is one of many pressuring Gov. Eric Holcomb to follow in the footsteps of California and New York in releasing nonviolent offenders to reduce crowding in Indiana prisons and jails. During his daily press conference April 14, Holcomb said he has no plans to follow suit.

In the press conference April 13, Holcomb said inmates are safer in jails and prisons than

they would be if they were released.

"We've got our offenders in a safe place, we believe," Holcomb said. "Maybe even safer than just letting them out, to avoid contracting this COVID-19."

In Indiana, African Americans comprise 30% of the prison population and only 9% of Indiana's general population, according to Ariella Sult, communications director for ACLU of Indiana.

Issues such as mental health, addictions and difficulties paying bail lead to higher levels of incarceration for African Americans not because Black people commit more crime, said Rosie Bryant, lead organizer for Faith in Indiana, a local chapter of community network Faith in Action.

According to data released by the Indiana State Department of Health, African American Hoosiers make up over 18% of cases throughout the state, and 19% of COVID-19 related deaths.

Advocates say it's likely this disparity will play out in prisons and jails — especially since cases of the virus are occuring between inmates and employees.

During the April 14 press conference, Indiana State Health Commissioner Dr. Kristina Box confirmed the first death of an inmate following a positive COVID-19 test. The man, in his 70s and incarcerated at the Westville Correctional Facility. Since then, 87 inmates at Westville Correctional Facility have tested positive for COVID-19.

According to a representative from the Indiana Department of Corrections (IDOC), 233 inmates across 10 Indiana correctional facilities tested positive for COVID-19 as of April 21. Seven Indiana inmates have died.

"We urge everyone to contact the governor and get him to reconsider," said Jane Henegar, executive director of American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Indiana. "It's the overwhelming opinion of public health officials across the country that jails and prisons, especially those in Indiana that are overcrowded, are petri dishes for this virus."

In what seems to be in conflict with Holcomb's view, Box appears to agree with Henegar.

"Like any congregate living situation, our correctional facilities are ripe for rapid transmission of COVID-19," she said during a daily press conference.

Beyond inadequate facilities to effectively practice social distancing, prisoners are only tested if they exhibit symptoms. In neighboring Ohio, testing is more comprehensive and more prisoners are tested. Dr. Kristen Dauss, chief medical officer for the IDOC, said in an April 21 press conference there are no plans to replicate the testing procedure in Indiana.

Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett is taking a different approach. On March 12, Mayor Joe Hogsett directed Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department to issue summonses as opposed to arresting individuals outright for nonviolent offenses in order to curb overcrowding in Marion County jails. Marion County was one of the first counties in Indiana to begin releasing inmates at the beginning of the pandemic.

Advocates are concerned about everyone inside a jail or prison is at risk of contracting and spreading the virus. As of April 16, IDOC has confirmed that 58 staff members tested positive for COVID-19.

"Those guards come back out in the community and put everyone at risk," Ajabu said.

The ACLU of Indiana penned an open letter calling for the release those at high risk for complications from COVID-19, as well as those who were set to be released in the near future.

While a pandemic isn't an ideal time to ease inmates into reentry, several foundations, including Lilly Endowment, created funds to help find housing and resources.

"This pandemic highlights the cost to society of having a system that goes default to incarceration," Henegar said. "You can speculate a lot about what happens if people are released from jail ... but we can't retain people in jails and prisons that are overcrowded, especially people who have underlying health situations that make them particularly susceptible."

Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.