Editorial: Watching for disparities in neighborhoods— and along racial lines

A report published by the City of Boston's Public Health Commission last Friday offered an early glimpse into the distribution of COVID-19 cases by neighborhood, and to that point, Dorchester and Mattapan were shown to be above the citywide average of 18 cases per 10,000 Bostonians.

Two Dorchester zip codes— 02124 and 02122 — recorded 175 positive cases through April 2 out of a citywide total of 1,232. That represented a rate of 21.6 cases per 10,000 residents. Zip codes 02121 and 02125 had a slightly lower rate, but were still higher than the citywide average, at 20.4/10,000.

The total number of COVID-19 positive cases in all of Dorchester as of last Thursday at 1 p.m. was 306, according to the BPHC. At the time, that represented about 24 percent of Boston's share of cases to date. Dorchester has 126,146 residents— or about 18 percent of the city's total population, according to the Boston Planning and Development Agency's most recent analysis of census figures.

Mattapan had 72 reported cases through April 2, according to the city agency— a rate of 24.3 per 10,000. Mattapan is home to 26,170 residents by the city's latest estimate while Hyde Park led the city in terms of case rate at 30.4 per 10,000 residents.

By Monday, the city had seen 19 deaths and 2,035 confirmed cases, including 203 people who are classified now as “recovered.” We can expect to see updated weekly reports generated by the Health Commission. It’s helpful to have a data-driven understanding of what’s happening week to week.

Still, as Adam Gaffin at Universal Hub wrote, the report “does not attempt to explain the neighborhood numbers with respect to whether they are actually due to higher numbers of infected people or whether they are due to the neighborhoods having more people who, especially in the early days of the outbreak, were more likely to be recommended for one of the then scarce test kits.”

City officials are now focused on identifying potential “clusters” in specific buildings. Thankfully, they have not seen, to date, anything like the devastating cluster that has claimed a staggering 21 lives and counting at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home.

Initial news reports from hard-hit “hot-spots” like Chicago and Louisiana are already tracking a disproportionately high death rate among people of color. Is that happening in Boston, too? Today’s answer is: We just don’t know yet. Data gleaned from local hospitals and compiled by the city is —so far— too incomplete to give us a clear picture.

City Councillor Andrea Campbell, whose District 4 includes parts of Dorchester and Mattapan, told the Reporter that “what keeps me up at night, frankly, is thinking about the impact of the aftermath that we’re going to have.

"Populations in these neighborhoods are dealing with economic inequality and health disparities, and they will suffer even more during a health crisis like this pandemic," Campbell said.

Marty Martinez, Mayor Walsh’s very capable Health and Human Services chief, said on Tuesday that the city hopes to get a fuller picture of demographics in the coming days. That will be very helpful.

As the crisis unfolds, we need to be mindful of existing disparities and their real-time consequences amid this still-unfolding crisis.

- Bill Forry