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COVID-19 Is Dangerous For People With Asthma — That Puts Black St. Louisans At Risk

Officials in Missouri and Illinois say a quarantine is the best way to ensure that people exposed to the new coronavirus do not put others at risk.
David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio

People with asthma may be at a higher risk of becoming very sick and dying from COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That means black people in St. Louis’ poorest neighborhoods are especially vulnerable to the coronavirus epidemic. Several ZIP codes in north St. Louis have asthma hospitalization rates nearly twice that of the city as a whole, according to state health datacompiled by the Conduent Healthy Communities Institute.

“A global pandemic can affect anyone; it can come to anyone’s doorstep no matter where you live or what your ZIP code is,” said Chris Martinez, executive director of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America’s St. Louis chapter. “But your ability to deal and your ability to recover from that is greatly related to the resources you have in your life.”

Researchers at Washington University have found the city’s black children are more likely than white children to be treated in the emergency room for asthma and are more likely to suffer from exposure to dangerous mold and other forms of residential and industrial air pollution.

Wash U researchers also have identified several ZIP codes in north St. Louis as asthma hot spots, where children have asthma hospitalization rates five times as high as their counterparts in other parts of the city. The predominantly black neighborhoods in those ZIP codes have many low-income residents.

The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is so new that researchers aren’t sure how asthma and the disease are connected, Martinez said. But similar respiratory viruses have taken a toll on St. Louisans with asthma, he said.

“It is certainly possible that coronavirus could cause you or your loved one to have a more severe case the way other respiratory viruses have in the past,” he said.

People with asthma aren’t more likely to contract the disease, but they are more likely to have serious cases of the illness, he said.

“Because the coronavirus attacks the lungs, people whose lungs have some underlying problem are just more susceptible to that disease making them sicker,” said Karen Joynt Maddox, a cardiologist and co-director of the Washington University Center for Health Economics and Policy. “We’d see higher rates of people having breathing problems when they get this disease, potentially higher rates of needing ventilators and potentially worse outcomes at the end.”

Racial minorities are more likely to have underlying conditions that also include kidney disease and diabetes that put them at risk for serious COVID-19 complications. In New York, the places with the highest concentration of the disease are the areas with the highest proportions of racial and ethnic minorities, she said.

“One of our biggest worries right now is this virus is going to disproportionately affect the African American community in the city for a number of reasons, asthma being one of them,” she said.

African Americans need to try to protect themselves from the virus through social distancing, St. Louis Health Director Fred Echolswrote this week in the St. Louis American. As of Wednesday, all 12 city residents who had died from the coronavirus were black.

Educating the public about the importance of social distancing and staying home is vital, Echols wrote.

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @petit_smudge

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org

Sarah Fentem is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.