A recent scene from Westland Plaza on Fortification Street in Jackson, Miss., Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Despite African Americans making up less than 40 percent of Mississippi’s population, black Mississippians represent 56 percent of the state’s known COVID-19 infections and 72 percent of deaths, newly released demographic data from the state health department show.

The data showing the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on black Mississippians mirrors findings in other locations reporting racial demographic data and the disparate effects on African Americans.


The health department states that these rates are based on cases where full information is known and may not include all cases. The new health department demographic information is statewide and not broken down by county. The state does report the overall number of cases for each county, however.

Though the most cases in the state are following population and clustered in Hinds and DeSoto counties as well as the Gulf Coast, rural areas are also impacted. Namely, the counties of Wilkinson (37 cases per 10,000 residents) and Bolivar, Tunica and Tippah (each with 17 cases per 10,000) have been hit hardest by the virus.

Three of those counties have no intensive care unit beds within the county — Bolivar has eight ICU beds. Tunica does not have a hospital at all.

Of the rural counties seeing most per capita cases, most are overwhelmingly black. Tunica and Wilkinson counties have black populations of over 70 percent; Bolivar County is 64 black.

On Tuesday, Mississippi hit the 2,000 case mark; 67 people have died. Using the newly released race data, that’s 1,122 African Americans with known cases, 741 white people and 140 other. Forty-eight African Americans have died and 19 white people have died.

The new data also breaks down deaths by underlying health conditions and race. As of Tuesday, most deaths were among African Americans with heart disease followed closely by African Americans with diabetes and high blood pressure.

In Mississippi, 16 percent of black adults have diabetes compared to 13.5 percent of white adults. African Americans in Mississippi also die from cardiovascular disease at a rate 20 percent more than white folks — 411 per 100,000 black people versus 341 per 100,000 white people, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data compiled by United Health Foundation’s America’s Health Rankings.

Data also show that women are infected and hospitalized with coronavirus at a higher rate in Mississippi, according to information obtained from the state health department. Black women comprise the front lines of the state’s low-wage workforce, including filling most cashier jobs that are at higher risk for exposure than most.

Additionally, there are roughly 64,000 registered nurses, licensed nurses, medical assistants and home health aides across the state; among them, about 35 percent are black women.

Mississippi is also tied for the fourth highest uninsurance rate among African Americans, at 16 percent, which experts say can result in disproportionate health outcomes.

Mississippi has also declined to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. During his campaign, now-Gov. Tate Reeves ran on opposing what he calls “Obamacare expansion.”

In a recent interview with Mississippi Today, when asked about Medicaid expansion as a way to combat coronavirus, Reeves said:

“One of the challenges we have in Mississippi, and it’s one of the things that worries me, is we do have a lot of people in our state who are either obese or headed towards obesity, and that’s not a good condition to have if you were to contract the virus. That puts you in a higher risk category because you’re going to have similar challenges breathing, etcetera, if you get one of the horrible cases,” said Reeves, who stated that his position on Medicaid expansion remained unchanged.

“So we’ve got to make sure, and we’re working to do so, that we have access to care for every Mississippian that contracts the virus. We do need to prioritize. We don’t need everyone who’s sneezing to run and get a test.”

Tuesday, state epidemiologist Paul Byers announced that cases and deaths were starting to show a disproportionate impact on the black community, saying it was likely driven by underlying health conditions and “troubling, obviously.”

“We know that there can be higher rates of underlying chronic medical problems among African Americans in Mississippi. This is not news. We’ve seen this before. We know with COVID-19 that it can have a disproportionate impact on those individuals with underlying, chronic medical problems,” Byers said Tuesday.

Other states have slowly begun to release race data so far, showing similar disproportionate impact on African Americans. Louisiana, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois and North Carolina have reported similar data, though experts say this data should have come sooner and broken down further.

Anna Wolfe contributed to this story.

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Erica Hensley, a native of Atlanta, has been working as an investigative reporter focusing on public health for Mississippi Today since May 2018. She is a Knight Foundation fellow for our newsroom’s collaboration with local TV station WLBT and curates The Inform[H]er, our monthly women and girls’ newsletter. She is the 2019 recipient of the Doris O'Donnell Innovations in Investigative Journalism Fellowship. Erica received a bachelor’s in print journalism and political science from the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and a master’s in health and medical journalism from the University of Georgia Grady College for Journalism and Mass Communication.