When the coronavirus arrived in Mississippi almost eight months ago, one of the most notable subplots was that Black patients accounted for a large percentage of infections and deaths.
Mississippi’s population is about 38% Black, but during the early months of the pandemic, Black people made up a disproportionate share of the COVID-19 cases and deaths. Among the reasons given for this imbalance were that a higher percentage of Black residents had other health problems that made them susceptible to infection and bad outcomes from it, and that Black residents had less access to health care.
Both points certainly are accurate. But if that’s all that was involved, the caseload division by race would remain the same. The raw number of infections and deaths among White Mississippians, however, has caught up and now surpasses that of Blacks. Black deaths are still disproportionately large, but the gap has narrowed.
Through Wednesday, the Mississippi Department of Health has reported 123,887 coronavirus infections. Black cases number 45,902 (37% of the total), but white cases are higher at 50,022 (40%). Another 10,302 cases were people of other races, including American Indians and Asians.
There is a margin of error in the report, since the race of the remaining 17,661 patients is listed as unknown. But the figures show that more white people have been getting infected of late.
The trend is about the same with the 3,405 deaths in Mississippi attributed to the virus: 1,544 victims (45%) were black, and a higher number, 1,620 (48%), were white. Another 152 (4%) were of other races, while the race of 85 people who died was unknown.
Some possible explanations for the rising number of white infections and deaths:
• A significant number of white Mississippians have underlying health problems, too.
• There also are plenty of white Mississippians who don’t have access to medical care.
• Over time, as the virus continued to spread, it was bound to find more white people, since they are a majority of the state’s population.
• More whites have left themselves vulnerable to infection with the “live your life” philosophy that urges people not to be afraid of the virus, and to behave as normally as possible.
• And as a corollary to that thought, it could be that more Black people saw how the virus was spreading in Mississippi and took precautions, such as wearing a mask. The change in infection rates indicates this made a difference.
The numbers make it clear that the trends of March and April have reversed: The virus is affecting more white people in Mississippi now.
Gov. Tate Reeves and the state health officer, Dr. Thomas Dobbs, repeatedly have urged people to wear masks and keep their distance from others as the state and the nation wrestle with a rising number of infections.
The reluctance about precautions such as masks is understandable, but only to a point. The chance of any one person getting infected is minimal — 2% or 3%. The odds of dying are far less than that. What tends to be overlooked is how one ill person can affect many others.
Everyone says they’re more than ready to be rid of the pandemic — but it’s become clear that too few are willing to do what it takes to make that happen, short of a vaccine.