While they’re not close to the peak levels witnessed in April and May, COVID-19 deaths in Chicago are rising fast.
Deaths in the city have increased two months in a row. And just halfway through November, Chicago had already surpassed its death count for all of October, according to a WBEZ analysis of death records from the Cook County medical examiner’s office and census data.
In addition, the dramatic racial gap in COVID-19 deaths in Chicago has narrowed slightly since the earliest weeks of the pandemic, but the disparities persist, the analysis shows.
During the first two weeks of November, a total of 135 Chicagoans died from COVID-19, easily topping the 117 deaths in October, according to the analysis. In April and again in May, COVID-19 claimed the lives of more than 1,000 Chicagoans.
The disproportionate impact on Black Chicagoans was evident from the earliest weeks of the pandemic. By April 4, WBEZ reported that 61 of the 86 recorded deaths in Chicago at that time — or 70% — were Black residents, in a city that is 29% Black.
Seven months later, Black residents account for 40% of the more than 3,000 Chicagoans who’ve died from COVID-19 during the pandemic.
As of Nov. 15, the COVID-19 death rate among Black Chicagoans was the highest among the city’s four largest racial or ethnic groups and nearly double that of the city’s white residents.
Overall, a total of 1,235 Black Chicagoans died after contracting the coronavirus or roughly 16.1 deaths for every 10,000 residents, according to the WBEZ analysis.
For white Chicagoans, the rate was 9.2 deaths per 10,000 residents. For the city’s Latino residents, the rate was slightly higher at 10.6 deaths per 10,000 residents. And for Asian Chicagoans, the rate was 5.1 deaths per 10,000 residents.
In addition, six of the city’s 10 ZIP codes with the highest COVID-19 death rates were majority Black, the analysis shows. The 60649 ZIP code, which includes much of the South Shore community, had the highest death rate with roughly 29.5 deaths per 10,000 residents.
In August, WBEZ reported that such disparities illustrate long-standing, systemic conditions that made the pandemic’s disproportionate impact rather predictable.
“Those communities … are oppressed to begin with,” said Dr. Linda Rae Murray, a health policy professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “These differences in death rates show the underlying racism that exists in our city, which is not surprising.”
Murray said the residents of communities hardest hit by COVID-19 also live in multigenerational households where at least one person is an essential worker — like those who work in grocery stores or nursing homes. She said those workers are more exposed to the virus and then, unknowingly, bring it back home.
Murray said the pandemic has also hit Latino communities in Chicago especially hard. “The impact on the Latinx community is tremendous, if you just look at the hospitalization or cases,” she said.
While majority-Latino ZIP codes have the highest rates of infection, it’s Black communities that have the highest death rates. “That’s a reflection of how young that community is compared to the Black population,” Murray said.
More than 71% of Black Chicagoans who’ve died from COVID-19 were 75 years or older compared with 53% of the city’s Latino residents who’ve died from the disease, the analysis shows.
After the sharp spike in COVID-19 deaths in March, April and May, the gap between Black and white Chicagoans who’ve died from the disease has slowly narrowed. Since the beginning of September, COVID-19 death rates have been practically even among Black, Latino and white Chicagoans, according to WBEZ’s analysis.
Despite the statewide surge in cases over the past month and the persistence of disparities in deaths in Chicago, residents in the city’s majority-Black and majority-Latino ZIP codes remain less likely than their counterparts in majority-white ZIP codes to be tested for COVID-19. For instance, from Oct. 13 through Nov. 17, the testing rates for majority-Black and majority-Latino ZIP codes hover around 1,650 tests for every 10,000 residents. But the rate is more than 2,200 tests for every 10,000 residents for the city’s majority-white ZIP codes during that span, WBEZ reported.
Murray said the city should proactively test people, particularly those in places like nursing homes and jails, rather than relying on residents to get tested on their own.
“In Illinois, 53% of all the deaths in the state were related to nursing homes, either staff or residents,” she said. “To me we should test a certain percentage of people in nursing homes so that we can keep an eye on what’s going on.”
What’s also troubling, Murray said, is that more than eight months into the pandemic, health care workers are tired and there’s no relief in sight.
“It’s not like it ever went away. I know there’s fatigue in Chicago. My friends that have been working in ICUs, they are really exhausted,” she said. “How long can you work 12-hour shifts?”
María Ines Zamudio is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @mizamudio.