JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — African Americans in Mississippi are being disproportionately affected by the new coronavirus, and many have underlying health problems that make them more vulnerable to it, the state epidemiologist said Tuesday.
Dr. Paul Byers said about 50% and "maybe a little bit more" of those testing positive for the highly contagious virus and more than 50% of those dying from it in the state are black.
"This is troubling, obviously," Byers said during a news conference.
African Americans make up about 38% of Mississippi's population of nearly 3 million people.
Mississippi has high rates of heart disease, diabetes and asthma. The state also has a high poverty rate and a large percentage of uninsured residents who might be less likely to seek preventative medical care for chronic conditions.
Republican Gov. Tate Reeves said Tuesday that he wants African American community leaders, including pastors and politicians, to talk to people about trying to protect themselves and seek medical help if they think they might have the virus.
"Let's communicate and talk about the dangers that exist out there, and there are dangers to anyone that has chronic medical conditions," Reeves said.
The governor posted a short Health Department video to his Facebook page Tuesday showing actor Morgan Freeman, who lives in Mississippi, telling people to wash their hands, disinfect surfaces and keep distance from others to slow the spread of the virus.
"We will emerge from this pandemic stronger as a state and as a people, I'm sure," Freeman says. "Stay home and stay healthy, Mississippi."
Mississippi's overall coronavirus caseload grew to at least 1,915 infections as of Monday evening, with 59 deaths, the Health Department said Tuesday. That is an increase of 177 cases and eight deaths from the previous day.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, the highly contagious virus can cause severe symptoms and be fatal.
The Mississippi Health Department website, as of Tuesday, still did not show information about the race of people affected by the coronavirus.
Racial disparities are showing up in other places. Alabama officials said Tuesday that more than 40% of COVID-19 deaths in that state have been in African Americans; about 27% of Alabama's population is black.
Most of the people who have died of COVID-19 in Mississippi are 60 or older, and the outbreak has spread to at least 38 long-term care facilities, the state said Tuesday.
The most-populated areas are seeing the largest caseloads. These include three counties in the metro Jackson area — Hinds, Rankin and Madison; DeSoto County in the northwestern corner of the state bordering Tennessee; coastal Harrison and Jackson counties; and south Mississippi's Pearl River County, which borders hard-hit Louisiana and is a place where people commute to work and shop between the two states.
But some areas with smaller populations are seeing growing caseloads.
Bolivar County is in the Delta, with about 30,600 people, 64% African American, according to the Census. It had 54 confirmed coronavirus cases and two deaths by Monday evening.
Wilkinson County is in the southwestern corner of the state, bordering Louisiana. Its population of about 8,600 is 71% African American. It has 32 confirmed cases and three deaths.
The Health Department said Tuesday that 20,370 coronavirus tests had been done in the state, by public and private labs, as of Sunday. Cases were reported in 80 of 82 counties.
Reeves issued a statewide stay-at-home order that took effect Friday evening and remains in place until the morning of April 20. It bans gatherings of 10 or more people.
Reeves has said people should limit their outings to essential errands like grocery shopping. He said law enforcement officers will break up big groups of people who are out socializing. Grocery stores, pharmacies and other businesses deemed essential will remain open.