The racial disparities of COVID-19

People of color are being hospitalized and dying from COVID-19 at far higher rates than previously reported, new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show.

These long overdue edits to COVID-19 hospitalization and death data shows Black people are dying from the coronavirus at almost three times the rate of their white counterparts. The edits are alarming and further prove the need for examining systemic racism and racial disparities in our health care systems.

The new report came after Sen. Elizabeth Warren requested the agency account for the disproportionate age breakdown in COVID-19 deaths experienced by people of color in the overall mortality rate for different racial demographics. This process is called adjusting for age.

Adjusting for age is a standard way of measuring disease impact on communities. This takes into account that different diseases occur at different rates in every age group.

For example, while older people are more likely to be impacted by chronic illnesses, younger people are more likely to be impacted by different types of accident related injuries. Adjusting for age allows health researchers to determine what the most common health problem in a community will be, and oftentimes gives researchers the knowledge of gaps in care within communities. This can be used to find diseases and illnesses that are disproportionately impacting age groups, races, or even be used to find out if an illness is disproportionately impacting a specific location.

After adjusting for age, Latinx and Black communities are shown to die at a rate of almost three times that of white Americans, the CDC now says.

The agency previously said Latinx and Black Americans were dying at a rate of about one and two times higher than white Americans, respectively. The updated analysis also shows that American Indians or Alaska Natives have died at a rate 2.6 times that of white Americans. The CDC previously put that figure at 1.4 times as high as white Americans.

Warren had called on the CDC to revise the data back in mid-November, at the time saying that the health data did not tell the entire story of the impact of COVID-19 on communities of color — specifically among the Black community. She also asked the CDC to conduct a separate analysis of years of potential life lost, because the virus appears to be killing more younger people of color than it is white people.

The CDC’s previous infographics and statistics downplayed the impact that COVID-19 was having on communities of color. The updated data not only shows a disproportionate impact on communities of color, but it continues to expose the cracks in our health delivery systems. While this update can be applauded for finally occurring, happening so late in the pandemic has likely caused excessive deaths and undue burden in communities of color. Adjusting for age is a standard in health outcome reporting, and the CDC must be pushed to continue this standard practice.

This is yet another example of why those working in the federal government and health care overall must address systemic racism and racial disparities.