A steady stream of research has shown vulnerable communities across the United States are impacted the most by the COVID-19 pandemic, and a new study uncovers a stunningly huge inequity among a specific group in California.Researchers at the University of Southern California found Hispanic immigrants of working age, that is 20 to 54-year-olds — are 11.6 times more likely to die of the virus than U.S.-born men and women who are not Hispanic. Looking at Hispanics of the same age who were both U.S.-born and foreign-born, the death rate was 8.5 times that of whites.
Among Black men and women age 20 to 54, the coronavirus death rate was nearly five times that of whites.

These numbers are far higher than the ones from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which indicate Hispanics in the U.S. are 2.3 times more likely to die from the virus and Blacks are 1.9 times more likely than whites.

“We all have known since the beginning of the pandemic when numbers were coming up that there were differential impacts for different groups and we saw that especially for Black and Hispanic individuals,” said Erika Garcia, an assistant professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and the study’s lead author. “We haven’t been able to break it down by age group like this. Although we figured there would be differences, we didn’t expect it to be so large. With a ratio, the numbers disparities are much larger among these younger working age individuals, particularly you see it for both Black and Hispanic individuals.”

Garcia and her co-authors said the study is a “call for state officials and public health departments to target vaccinations and treatments to a demographic that comprises the backbone of the state’s agricultural and service industries,” according to a statement on the study from USC.

For the study published March 29 in the Annals of Epidemiology, researchers analyzed the death certificates of 10,200 people who died from COVID in California from Feb. 1 through July 31, 2020. “Death certificate data, rather than hospital system or insurance company data, allowed the researchers to capture COVID deaths among historically marginalized groups, including immigrants, who might be underrepresented in health care or insurance systems,” the statement read.

The most frequently observed characteristics among individuals were ages 65 years or above, foreign-born, male, Hispanic,and educational attainment of High School or below.

Garcia said when they took a closer look at the data by age group, the disparities were more significant among younger-aged Asian/Pacific Islanders, Blacks, Hispanics and whites.

While the study didn’t identify the reason for the disparities, Garcia said she and the other study authors hypothesized based on other research that working age Blacks and Hispanics are more likely to work in service industries that require them to leave their homes daily, often for jobs that expose them to high numbers of other people. Hispanics are also more likely to work in agriculture jobs.

“Within each of those groups, there are differences in risks, and risk factors may be different between black and Hispanic and men and women,” she said. “A lot of it has to do with living conditions, and if there are multiple people living in a home. People who have to leave the home for work are at a higher risk and working conditions and having to take public transportation also play into it. The risk factor for COVID is higher if you have to come into contact with more people.”

Jon Jacobo, the health committee chair for the San Francisco-based Latino Task Force, wasn’t entirely surprised by the study results though he said he was stunned by the disparity between working age Hispanics and whites.

“The number did pop out as something a lot higher than what I had anticipated,” Jacobo said, “We know the national average is 2.3 times higher. It falls right in line with the pain we’ve been seeing on the front lines.”

Jacobo said the study highlights the pain experienced by Hispanics in agriculture jobs in the Central Valley that has been hammered by the pandemic. The Task Force is assisting with the COVID effort in Planada, a small farming community of 4,500 people west of Merced.

“We’ve talked to people here who have tested positive in their farm jobs, and then they have to drive two hours and pay $200 to $300 for a test to prove they’re negative before they return to work,” he said. “Those have been some of the stories that have been shared with us and have been painful for us to listen to. You think of the disparities and inequities and access to resources among these farm workers who support all the food that comes into our homes and to the tables.”

He also noted that Hispanics have been hit harder not due to individual choices but due to systems and policies that have long been in place.

“It’s not that we don’t know how to wear masks,” he said. “It’s not that we don’t follow CDC guidance. And it’s not that we don’t think this is real because in fact we know that it’s real more than anyone because our community has been hit so hard. It’s the legacies of racist policies that were enacted with this country’s founding and continue to be perpetuated today.”