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Report By Ellen Florek
TULSA, Okla. — Amid a soaring spike in coronavirus cases across the state of Oklahoma, Tulsa County’s latest COVID-19 data suggests that people of color, particularly Asian and Latinx people, are being harmed disproportionately by the virus.
Publicly available data from the Tulsa Health Department shows that as of Wednesday, July 7 17.83 percent of total COVID-19 cases in Tulsa County are Asian people, despite Asians making up just 3.6 percent of the total population in the area. Similarly, Latinx people account for 24.14 percent of total COVID-19 reported cases, but only makeup 13.3 percent of the general population.
The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the harsh reality of the long-existing social and health disparities that exist for racial minorities in our nation, but Tulsa County’s data displays a different side of this narrative. The CDC has released national data that indicated non-Hispanic Black and Indigenous Americans are 5 times more likely to be hospitalized due to COVID-19 than non-Hispanic White Americans. However, in Tulsa County Black and Indigenous people have disproportionately low rates of COVID-19 infection.
Approximately 10.8 percent of the population of Tulsa is Black and 6.9 percent is Native American/Indigenous; but these populations make up 6.06 and 2.36 percent of COVID-19 cases respectively. So why is Tulsa an outlier in the national trends of COVID-19 data, in relation to specific ethnic and racial groups?
When contacted for potential explanations for these discrepancies Leanne Stephens, Marketing and Communications Director for Tulsa Health Department, stated in an email that “due to patient privacy laws, we (the Tulsa Health Department) are unable to provide any details of specific events or sites where cases can be traced to.”
The Tulsa Health Department provides COVID-19 prevention information in a variety of formats, including through their website, social media and media outreach.
Ms. Stephens also emphasized their staff, which works to present virtually with numerous community groups and organizations, including schools, businesses, faith partners, social service agencies, and other special interest groups.
THD does provide educational resources in a number of languages, most notable, Spanish, Burmese and Zomi, and has worked to hire additional bilingual staff to assist with contact tracing, case notification, and phone banking.
While this information provides some context to THD’s efforts to reach all Tulsans, it does not provide any real explanation as to why there are such large discrepancies in reported COVID-19 cases between racial/ethnic groups in Tulsa County, especially since our cases are counter the national trends of COVID-19 effect on different racial/ethnic groups. The Oklahoma State Department of Health did not respond to requests for information.
A potential theory or explanation may be related to access to testing. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2018 Asians were the highest-paid racial group in Oklahoma, making 1.07 dollars to every 1.00 dollar made by a white Oklahoman. Thus, Asian Tulsans may simply have more access to testing and treatment for COVID-19, causing their over-representation in the Tulsa Health Department’s data.
The Tulsa Health Department is offering COVID-19 testing, as well as all of the local hospitals, health care centers, OU and OSU campus, several Walmart and CVS locations and other private businesses. However, testing is not free at all locations, which may pose a financial barrier to low-income and uninsured/under-insured Tulsans. This could also explain why Black and Indigenous Tulsans have significantly fewer reported cases of COVID-19, as they more often may lack the financial resources to obtain testing and treatment.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2017 approximately 95,550 Hispanic Oklahomans, 76,622 Black Oklahomans, and 61,820 Indigenous Oklahomans were living in poverty, as defined by the federal poverty guidelines. This is significantly higher than the amount of Asian Oklahomans living in poverty, and is disproportionately again to these three racial/ehtnic groups total population share.
Additionally, the disparity in Latinx COVID-19 cases could potentially be explained by a higher likelihood of exposure through essential working positions. The 2018 Oklahoma Workforce Briefing states that 42.7 percent of Hispanic Oklahomans possess less than a high school diploma, making them significantly more likely to be working in lower-wage service positions than other racial/ethnic groups. Without explanations from the data teams and epidemiologists from Tulsa Health Department or Oklahoma State Department of Health, it is impossible to say for sure what has created these disparities.
At first glance, the Tulsa Health Department data seems to paint a picture contrary to the national data points surrounding COVID-19 and race, but upon further investigation it in fact shows a different side of the same coin. The data shows this pandemic affecting our Latinx and Asian communities more, but the seeming lack of data and communication in regards to our Black and Indigenous communities is just as revealing. Black, Indigenous and Latinx people are still disproportionately affected by COVID-19 due to long-standing disparities in their access to healthcare, higher probability to be working in high-exposure essential positions, and other everyday systemic inequalities. However, through community education, expanded access to free COVID-19 testing, and other measures, we can begin to address the real impact of inequality in our healthcare systems and daily lives in the context of this pandemic.
Ellen Florek is an educator in Tulsa, OK, originally hailing from Cleveland, OH. She studied Political Science, Special Education, and Social Justice Studies at Miami University (OH). Her past research focuses on the intersection of education, disability, and politics in America.