Black residents of the Garden State who test positive for COVID-19 have a much higher chance of dying from it than white residents.

Health Department data shows about 21% of COVID-19 deaths in New Jersey are African Americans, even though they only account for about 14% of the state population.

According to Rutgers-Camden nursing professor Bonnie Jerome-D’Emilia, many African Americans grow up in lower-income households without good health insurance and good access to healthy food, so they are more prone to health problems.

People who face increased risk from COVID-19 are those who have co-morbidities like obesity, diabetes, asthma and hypertension.

"Unfortunately, all of these are at higher rates in the African American community," she said.

Dr. Alex Salerno, founder of the nonprofit Urban Healthcare Initiative Program in Newark, said what you put in your body counts.

“So socio-economics and nutrition is paramount and a building block to disease state management and disease state prevention," he said.

He said when you have a higher amount of diabetes and hyper-tension “and it’s not well controlled ... that creates the propensity for a worse COVID response.”

He also noted poor nutritional choices are frequently the result of poor knowledge.

“You know a lot of folks, unfortunately, they make decisions based on fiction and what they heard in the barber shop or what they’ve heard in the social center," he said. “People feel that more meat on the bones is healthier, and it’s not when that meat on the bones is fat.”

D’Emilia said when people don’t have a good nutritional understanding and poor access to health care, this means “they are starting off in worse shape than other populations. They may not have insurance, they may be low income, or they may just have Medicaid, which is not as good, and that can cause problems later on.”

Dr. Salerno also pointed out that “part of the issue with certain populations is they don’t trust the messenger, and so if they don’t trust the messenger they don’t trust the message.”

He noted the Urban Healthcare Initiative Program is working with religious leaders in the community to help get out health care information so they hear it from sources they trust.

Another reason for the spread of the virus in the black community is that many African American families are multi-generational under one roof, meaning younger asymptomatic relatives may spread it to their grandparents.

D’Emilia noted another reason more African Americans are dying from the coronavirus is “they may have jobs where they have to go to work and deal with people, such as in a supermarket. That puts them in a position of being exposed to people who may be infected.”

You can contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com