Lawrence Riley was described as a father figure for many in his neighborhood, serving as a surrogate for many who did not have a dad growing up.
“He was an iron man,” his son Elvaughn told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. “He was big, big, big in the community.”
But despite the love the 6-foot-5 gentle giant gave to the world around him, the 66-year-old retired Milwaukee firefighter and Navy Vietnam veteran died from complications of COVID-19 on March 19, the first coronavirus death in the city, which health officials say has somehow disproportionately affected Black men there.
In fact, the majority of confirmed cases of the disease involve middle-aged African American men. The first three deaths in Milwaukee, including Riley, were all Black men in their 50s or 60s. Each had prior conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), diabetes, and high blood pressure. Riley had all three of those and had suffered three strokes, in addition to a back injury that forced his retirement in 1990.
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Milwaukee Health Commissioner Jeanette Kowalik told the Journal-Sentinel that the majority of confirmed cases in the city involved African American men in Riley’s age group. Of the 158 people infected there, most are middle aged Black males, she said.
Even before the spread of COVID-19, Black men fared among the worst in almost every health category. Black men have the highest overall death rate from cardiovascular disease among all minority groups, according to the National Institutes of Health; have higher incidences of death from high blood pressure than any group in the world, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and number in the millions in cases of diabetes, leading the nation according to the Office of Minority Health.
Making matters worse, young Black men are more likely than anyone else to be the victims of violent crime, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, something many in the public health arena consider a public health emergency in itself.
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Milwaukee, which has seen its share of those very problems, is 38.8 percent Black, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, much of the population concentrated in enclaves on the city’s north side. Health officials are attempting to engage the community to spread the message of mitigating coronavirus before it spreads further.
Milwaukee County leads the state of Wisconsin with 347 out of its 707 cases, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. It is unclear what the racial makeup of cases is so far, but officials understand how disproportionate health disparities can lead to further instances.
City officials are “communicating as fast as we can and as deeply as we can into these neighborhoods to let people know that this is not just about people who had been in China," said Mayor Tom Barrett said. "This is about something that's here right now."
Meanwhile, Lawrence Riley’s family must prepare to bury the father that was married 29 years and who raised six children, and a host of others in their Sherman Park neighborhood.
"He drove to the hospital while having a stroke,” Elvaughn Riley said. “He's toughest dude I ever knew. And now the virus pounced on him.”
For the latest on the coronavirus, check out BET’s blog on the virus, and contact your local health department or visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.