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Boston releases coronavirus data that point to stark racial disparities among those infected

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh spoke at a press briefing Wednesday on the city's efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. Walsh released data Thursday showing the racial/ethnic breakdown of city residents infected with the disease.
Boston Mayor Marty Walsh spoke at a press briefing Wednesday on the city's efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. Walsh released data Thursday showing the racial/ethnic breakdown of city residents infected with the disease.Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

The coronavirus is hitting Boston’s communities of color especially hard, according to data released Thursday by the Walsh administration that showed stark disparities in infection rates between the city’s Black and white residents.

Of the cases in which an infected resident’s race was identified, more than 40 percent were Black, the numbers show. Yet these residents account for just 25 percent of Boston’s population.

Meanwhile, infection rates among the city’s white residents are almost reverse. They account for about 28 percent of the COVID-19 cases, even though they make up 45 percent of the population. Similarly, Asian residents account for about 10 percent of the city’s population, but make up just 5 percent of COVID-19 infections.

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City officials cautioned that their data set was incomplete, that they only had race and ethnicity information for about 62 percent of the city’s 2,513 cases. But they are vowing to do better, amid a rising concern that the virus is exacting a heavier toll in Black and Latino communities.

“Equity remains a major focus as we respond to the coronavirus pandemic,” Mayor Martin J. Walsh said Thursday outside City Hall. “We will be taking a good hard look at the numbers in Boston to understand and address any inequities that exist because we believe that data is critical.”

The statistics released Thursday indicate a surprisingly low percentage of infections among the city’s Hispanic residents. Community leaders and physicians this week have been reporting high rates of infections among Latinos, yet the city’s data do not reflect that. Data show roughly 14 percent of infections are among Latino and Hispanic residents, measurably lower than their standing as 20 percent of the city’s overall population.

To home in on the problem, Walsh announced on Thursday a new 24-member COVID-19 Health Inequities Task Force, which includes leaders from the city’s hospitals and religious, civil rights, and immigrant organizations.

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“By forming the COVID-19 Health Inequities Task Force, we can focus specifically on increasing access to this important data and tackling the inequities that we know exist in our communities,” Walsh said.

Race and ethnicity data were identified in about 62 percent of the city’s 2,513 cases. These percentages reflect all cases in which race and ethnicity were identified.
Race and ethnicity data were identified in about 62 percent of the city’s 2,513 cases. These percentages reflect all cases in which race and ethnicity were identified.handout (custom credit)/City of Boston

Lack of information has hamstrung efforts to combat the virus, particularly in communities that have had a complicated relationship with health care providers or have significant language barriers.

“This virus is infecting and killing my district residents, who are predominantly people of color, at a devastating rate, and it’s heartbreaking," City Councilor Andrea Campbell said in a released statement Thursday evening. "As a city, we need to come together to address these racial disparities, and make sure that every Bostonian can stay safe, and if they’re sick, can receive the medical care they need to recover.”

Data on race and ethnicity is crucial to understanding if access to testing and information about COVID-19 is equally available in all communities. It’s especially important for communities of color and immigrant neighborhoods because of a long history of mistrust of government and health care in these areas, specialists say.

Patchwork data released by a handful of cities and states across the country suggest the disease is having a disproportionate effect on communities of color.

Amid mounting pressure and calls for transparency, Governor Charlie Baker’s administration made public racial and ethnic information on Wednesday. But the data was so incomplete it provided little insight into the pandemic’s impact on communities of color that have been hit hard in other states. It included details on less than one-third of those infected. The Massachusetts Department of Public Health is the primary agency responsible for collecting and compiling test data from around the state.

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Kay Lazar can be reached at kay.lazar@globe.com Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar.