OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — The coronavirus pandemic appears to be taking a “startling,” disproportionate toll on Nebraska's Hispanic, Asian and black residents, a top health administrator said Friday.
Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services CEO Dannette Smith made the comments as the state released a partial breakdown of the virus' impact on different racial groups.
Nebraska had 13,261 confirmed virus cases as of Thursday night, according to the department. Among the 9,630 infected people whose races are known, Smith said 2,430 were minorities. Nebraska is more than 87% white.
“Some of our data is startling,” Smith said at a news conference with Gov. Pete Ricketts. “We have a lot of work to do with our communities of color to ensure we understand their culture and linguistic needs.”
About 40% of the residents who were hospitalized with the virus identified as Hispanic, even though that group represents just 11% of the state's overall population, according to the state data. Hispanics also accounted for about 20% of the state's coronavirus deaths, Smith said.
Asians accounted for 8% of Nebraska's coronavirus hospitalizations but represent just 2% of the population. And black residents represent 7% of Nebraska's hospitalizations but 5% of the general population.
White residents, by contrast, represented 70% of those hospitalized and 87% of the general population.
The disproportionate share of minority cases is likely driven by major outbreaks in Nebraska's meatpacking plants, which employ large numbers of Hispanic and black workers.
Dr. Gary Anthone, Nebraska's chief medical officer, said Friday that state officials have linked 2,988 virus cases to meatpacking plants, including 11 deaths and 140 hospitalizations.
Ricketts said the state has taken extra steps to warn minority communities about the virus, such as holding Spanish-language news conferences and hiring bilingual contact tracers to help identify people who have been exposed. Advocates for meatpacking workers have said the state isn't doing enough to protect vulnerable minority populations.
Smith said Nebraska's race data isn't complete because state officials don't have one central database where that information is recorded. Instead, she said public health officials are drawing from four different sources and won't have a full snapshot until the end of June.
Meanwhile, new figures show Nebraska saw an additional coronavirus death and another 200-plus cases of infection as the last week of May winds to an end.
The state’s online virus tracking site shows an additional death on Thursday, bringing the state’s total to 164 on Friday. The site also showed 285 additional cases of the virus confirmed Thursday.
Despite the steady increase, Ricketts has moved to ease social-distancing restrictions, starting Monday. The relaxed rules will allow for larger crowds at public events, and bars and other attractions will reopen for the first time in months.
For some infected people, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, the virus can cause severe illness or death. But for most people, it causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, that clear up in two to three weeks.