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Tracking COVID-19 Cases By ZIP Code Highlights Inequity In St. Louis Region

Affinia Healthcare's staff and nurses take a moment for prayer before the first day of testing at their Biddle Street location on April 2.
File photo | Kendra Holmes
Affinia Healthcare's staff take a moment for prayer before the first day of testing at their north St. Louis location on April 2. Long-standing socioeconomic factors have disproportionately put African Americans in the region at risk for COVID-19.

On April 8, St. Louis Health Director Dr. Fred Echols brought attention to the fact that, at that point, all 12 people who died of COVID-19 in St. Louis were African American. This echoed what other cities have experienced in treating COVID-19 patients: There are racial disparities in who is more at risk of a COVID-19 diagnosis due to long-standing socioeconomic factors that have disproportionately affected black Americans.

“The virus is showing us ourselves. It’s showing us the truth of the way in which people have to live in order to survive and do the best for them and their families,” said Washington University’s Dr. Laurie Punch, who is currently working in Christian Hospital Northeast’s ICU.

“And because we live in such a highly segregated city, which has scars in it carved by the knife that is structural racism,” Punch continued, “it’s not surprising that there is such a dramatic difference in the incidence of the disease and then the death by the disease when you look at north versus south St. Louis.”

On Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, Sarah Fenske spoke with Punch, as well as Michal Grinstein-Weiss, the director of Washington University’s Social Policy Institute and of the Centene Center for Health Transformation. Grinstein-Weiss recently looked into COVID-19 case counts in ZIP codes across the St. Louis region

“Babies born in the Ville [neighborhood] are six times more likely to have a low birth weight and twice as likely to die before their first birthday, compared to babies in Clayton,” said Grinstein-Weiss. “It’s like a vicious cycle. Then, in adulthood, people living in the Ville are much more likely to be diagnosed with asthma, obesity or diabetes, which are all major risk factors in this pandemic.”

To begin tackling the inequalities brought into stark light by COVID-19, said Grinstein-Weiss, St. Louis needs “to prioritize testing and make sure everyone has adequate testing. And second, we need to protect some of these low-wage essential workers by providing them adequate protective equipment, flexible paid time off.”

Punch also suggested people check out PrepareSTL, a collaborative campaign aimed to help prepare St. Louisans for the effects of the COVID-19 response and how to stop its spread.

“PrepareSTL is an example of black leadership in this city, regional leadership with institutions working to change this reality,” Punch said. “[It’s] an example of people standing up, fighting for the region and recognizing way ahead of time that this was going to be a need and that we have the power to make a difference.”

Hear the full conversation:

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Joshua Phelps. The engineer is Aaron Doerr, and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.

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

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Emily is the senior producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.