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Why essential workers of color could be more at risk during pandemic

As government officials consider how to reopen safely, a new study suggests workers of color bear more of the risk.

WASHINGTON D.C., DC — According to a new study by the Center for American Progress workers of color are much more likely than their white counterparts to have the serious underlying medical conditions that make COVID-19 more deadly.

As local officials start to consider how to reopen, it’s an issue that may have an even deeper impact in D.C. 

"We looked at everyone in America who has pre-existing conditions -- conditions like asthma, diabetes, heart disease that put them at greater risk of severe illness if they contract COVID-19," Conor Maxwell, an expert on race and ethnicity policy with the Center For American Progress, said. 

The study finds that at least 28% of people of color in the U.S. between the ages of 18 and 64 -- approximately 21 million people -- have an underlying illness that could put them at greater risk.

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 "One of the things that we found was that stark racial disparities exist in these pre-existing conditions," Maxwell said. 

The study also found that women are more likely than men to have at least one of these conditions.  

Maxwell said in Virginia and Maryland, about a third of African American workers have underlying conditions, compared to a quarter of their white counterparts.

And in D.C., he said the difference is even starker: 40% of black Washingtonians have an underlying condition compared to 14% of white workers.

Maxwell says reopening could compound the problem, because just 8% of U.S. workers of color without a college degree are able to do their jobs from home.

"They need to put policies in place that protect families and prevent them from having to make the choice between putting food on the table and keeping their job and keeping their families safe," Maxwell said. 

D.C. Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie is working with the D.C. Reopen Committee and co-chairs the team focused on issues of equity. 

"It’s important that we understand these disparities are steep in structural inequities, many of which existed before the coronavirus pandemic," McDuffie said. 

McDuffie's team is working to create policies that will offer help in the short term- and beyond

"There are a number of things on the table right now," he said. "I think this moment really calls for policymakers in the District of Columbia -- and across the world for that matter -- to be bold." 

In D.C., the toll of COVID-19 has already been painfully disproportionate. As of May 4, of the 258 people who have died in the District, 205 were African American and 19 were Hispanic.

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