ROCHESTER, Minn. -- Viruses may be colorblind, but the more we understand COVID-19, the worse it seems to get for Black, Hispanic and Native American Minnesotans.

Federal data has always suggested minorities were overrepresented among those who got the illness, but that overrepresentation is far worse than previously imagined.

By late June, Centers for Disease Control data had shown that Blacks made up 13% of the country's population and 22% of its COVID-19 cases, while Latin Americans made up 18% of the population and 34% of all COVID-19 cases.

White people are overrepresented among the elderly, however. Since COVID-19 primarily takes the lives of the elderly, that has distorted the true COVID-19 death rate by race.

With a recent New York Times analysis having controlled for this distortion, we now know that Blacks and Hispanics are three times as likely to contract COVID-19 in the U.S., and twice as likely to die from it.

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State-by-state comparisons tell us the situation is more pronounced in Minnesota.

At 43 out of 408 cases, for example, Blacks in northwestern Minnesota's Clay County have 178 cases per 10,000 Black residents, as opposed to 41 cases per 10,000 white residents. That's more than four times the rate.

With over 500 of the nearly 2,000 cases in Stearns County, Blacks have 492 cases per 10,000 residents, or 21 times the rate of illness. The differential is nine-fold in Blue Earth County (55 versus 6 per 10,000), 12-fold in Olmsted County (198 versus 16 per 10,000) and 16-fold in Kandiyohi County (298 versus 18 per 10,000 cases).

Hispanic Minnesotans have 57 times the rate of illness in Todd County in the central portion of the state.

Statewide, Blacks have 2,141 cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 residents, Hispanics have 3,120 cases per 100,000 residents, all versus 270 among whites.

Communities of color have nearly 10 times the rate of COVID-19 than white communities. Source: MDH
Communities of color have nearly 10 times the rate of COVID-19 than white communities. Source: MDH

Even George Floyd, whose May 25 death while in Minneapolis police custody sparked global protests, had been diagnosed with COVID-19 in April.

"It really goes back to social determinants of health," says Mayo Clinic's Dr. Mark Wieland. "People from minority households and immigrant households are more likely to live in multi-generational homes, more likely to have to go to work as essential workers, more likely to be in jobs that have the highest risks for COVID transmission and more reliant on public transportation."

Minority communities do worse once infected, he adds, "due to preexisting disparities related to health conditions that portend worse outcomes in COVID-19. We don't know as much about that data as it relates to immigrant populations."

In May, Mayo Clinic announced the results of an early initiative to change the way it communicates health information to affected communities. In late March, a team of researchers behind the Rochester Healthy Community Partnership partnered with a regional refugee assistance nonprofit, then spent two weeks tapping community leaders to be their messengers.

The project recruited 24 communicators from inside of the city's immigrant and refugee communities, designated to amplify messages through any social media platform necessary.

These workers relayed questions to the team, which provided concrete answers about testing, prevention and social services related to COVID-19. The project employed 11 Somali, six Hispanic, two Cambodian, three South Sudanese, one Anuak, and one Ethiopian speaking communicators. The platforms used included Facebook, telephone calls, and text messaging -- including WhatsApp and Viber.

The 14-day effort tapped six languages and nine platforms to reach over 9,800 local immigrant and refugee residents.

"It paid off big time," said Ahmed Osman, employment services manager at the Intercultural Mutual Assistance Association. "Without that there was no way we could reach out like we did. There was a lot of misinformation out there about COVID-19 that the connectors could fight back."

Osman says a gulf still exists in what is known about the virus and how it is experienced in minority communities. He says sick employees at food plants "were being sent home without taking in consideration that they were going back to a crowded home, where each one went and infected another seven or eight of their family members."

He says the offer of an uncrowded place to quarantine was the Civic Center, a destination that seemed like a homeless shelter.

"The community is much more prepared now," he says, "but what is missing is a staffed campaign. Without RHCP there would have been a catastrophe, but we still need a combined, managed effort made up of more than volunteers, with clear guidelines on how to really stop the spread."

"People are still participating in big numbers in funerals and weddings. That's one of the biggest challenges we have right now. You are fighting culture that is based on people joining together."

"Right now the work is done by volunteers. When they see all these institutions are working together they will understand the magnitude of COVID- 19. Right now all they see is volunteers, however, so they might dismiss it."