Feb 16, 2021 - Health

How the winter surge changed COVID disparities

Data: The COVID Tracking Project, U.S. Census Bureau; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios
Data: The COVID Tracking Project, U.S. Census Bureau; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

The giant surge of coronavirus cases over the fall and winter hit white Americans disproportionately hard, narrowing the racial disparities in COVID deaths.

Yes, but: When age is factored in, Americans of color still have a significantly higher death rate than white Americans, meaning people of color are dying at younger ages.

The big picture: The virus slammed the Midwest last fall, and then eventually spread rapidly across the entire country.

  • The Midwest has a higher white population than regions hit earlier on in the pandemic, particularly the South and the Sunbelt.
  • For the first time during the pandemic, counties with the highest white populations saw the most deaths, according to an analysis done by Jorge Caballero, a clinical instructor of anesthesia at the Stanford School of Medicine.
Reproduced from APM Research Lab; Chart: Axios Visuals
Reproduced from APM Research Lab; Chart: Axios Visuals

Yes, but: White Americans have a lower age-adjusted death rate than any other racial or ethnic group besides Asian Americans, per APM Research Lab.

  • The median age of white Americans is significantly higher than Black or Hispanic Americans, putting them at disproportionate risk of COVID based on age alone.
  • But other factors — like underlying health conditions and an increased risk of exposure — put younger people of color at a higher risk of death.
  • Latino Americans, for example, have about the same death rate as white Americans before age is taken into account. But when adjusted for age, the Latino death rate is 2.4 times higher.

Between the lines: Economically vulnerable counties have higher COVID death rates generally than those that are more well-off, according to a recent analysis by the Economic Innovation Group.

  • And in the most economically distressed counties, the average coronavirus morality rate varies based on the racial composition of the county, the analysis found.
  • In those with higher-than-average shares of Hispanics, the death rate is 210.9 deaths per 100,000 people, and for those with a higher share of Black residents the death rate is 201.2. But in distressed counties with a higher-than-average share of white residents, the death rate is 145.5.

What we're watching: Racial disparities have already appeared in the vaccination effort, with communities of color initially falling behind.

  • If these disparities persist, particularly as new variants of the virus become more prevalent in the U.S., the gap between different racial groups' death rate will likely widen in the coming months.
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