New data show that African Americans in Maine are testing positive for COVID-19 at a disproportionally high rate.

Forty-one African Americans have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. While that number may seem small compared to the 1,095 statewide cases, it suggests a disparity because African Americans account for only 1.7 percent of the state’s population, but 3.7 percent of its infections.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said the figures show a “deeply concerning” racial disparity that has been seen elsewhere in the United States. One study found that African Americans were twice as likely to die of COVID-19 in New York City. And the New York Times reported that blacks accounted for 40 percent of the deaths in Michigan despite making up only 14 percent of the population.

“These disparities are concerning,” Shah said. “They were alarming to us.”

Maine, which released the racial and ethnic breakdowns of COVID-19 cases for the first time Wednesday, is the last state in New England to do so. The information was reported the same day the state announced an outbreak at Tyson Foods’ meat processing plant in Portland, which employs many immigrant workers.

As of Thursday, 10 Tyson workers had tested positive for COVID-19, and arrangements were being made to test all 400 workers, Shah said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine called on the state to release the data April 16. Alison Beyea, the ACLU’s executive director, applauded its release, calling it the first step to ensuring Mainers of color are protected during the pandemic.

“We are not surprised to see that Black and brown people in Maine are being harmed at higher rates than white people,” Beyea said in a written statement. “This is consistent with what we are seeing around the country and reflects the systemic inequities that exist here and everywhere. The most important thing the Maine government can do now is ensure equitable access to testing, treatment and resources for these most vulnerable communities.”

The newly released data show that white people in Maine account for 731 cases, or 66.8 percent of the state’s caseload. However, whites make up 94.6 percent of the state’s population, according to 2019 population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. But 250 people, or a quarter of those with COVID-19, did not provide their race to state epidemiologists, so the percentage of positive cases among whites is likely much higher.

Patients are not required to provide that information to state epidemiologists during their investigation, according to a Maine CDC spokesperson.

New Hampshire is seeing even more of a disparity, with African Americans accounting for 5.6 percent of its case load but only 1.4 percent of the population. In Vermont, however, the case rate among African Americans is similar to the population, at 1.9 percent of cases and 1.4 percent of the population.

Shah speculated that African Americans and other minorities in Maine and nationally are contracting COVID-19 at higher rates because they often work in public-facing occupations and have less access to health care coverage.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, African Americans accounted for 12.3 percent of the nation’s workforce in 2019. Yet they accounted for more than one quarter of the workforce in fields such as health care support (26.7 percent); nursing, psychiatric and home health aides (37.2 percent); and personal care aids (25 percent).

Both the state and the city of Portland, which has a well-established immigrant population, offer coronavirus information in multiple languages on their respective websites.

Shah said he’s been holding regular video calls with representatives of Maine’s immigrant community to identify roadblocks to care and to share information about how immigrants can access health care if they’re sick, get tested and find follow-up care.

“We’re trying to take steps now to correct as many of those inequities as we can,” Shah said. 


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