Structural racism and COVID-19 response: higher risk of exposure drives disparate COVID-19 deaths among Black and Hispanic/Latinx residents of Illinois, USA



Abstract Background Structural racism has driven and continues to drive policies that create the social, economic, and community factors resulting in residential segregation, lack of access to adequate healthcare, and lack of employment opportunities that would allow economic mobility. This results in overall poorer population health for minoritized people. In 2020, Black and Hispanic/Latinx communities throughout the United States, including the state of Illinois, experienced disproportionately high rates of COVID-19 cases and deaths. Public health officials in Illinois implemented targeted programs at state and local levels to increase intervention access and reduce disparities. Methods To quantify how disparities in COVID outcomes evolved through the epidemic, data on SARS-CoV-2 diagnostic tests, COVID-19 cases, and COVID-19 deaths were obtained from the Illinois National Electronic Disease Surveillance System for the period from March 1 to December 31, 2020. Relative risks of COVID-19 cases and deaths were calculated for Black and Hispanic/Latinx vs. White residents, stratified by age group and epidemic interval. Deaths attributable to racial/ethnic disparities in incidence and case fatality were estimated with counterfactual simulations. Results Disparities in case and death rates became less drastic after May 2020, but did not disappear, and were more pronounced at younger ages. From March to May of 2020, the risk of a COVID-19 case for Black and Hispanic/Latinx populations was more than twice that of Whites across all age groups. The relative risk of COVID-19 death reached above 10 for Black and Hispanic/Latinx individuals under 50 years of age compared to age-matched Whites in the early epidemic. In all Illinois counties, relative risk of a COVID-19 case was the same or significantly increased for minoritized populations compared to the White population. 79.3 and 86.7% of disparities in deaths among Black and Hispanic/Latinx populations, respectively, were attributable to differences in age-adjusted incidence compared to White populations rather than differences in case fatality ratios. Conclusions Racial and ethnic disparities in the COVID-19 pandemic are products of society, not biology. Considering age and geography in addition to race/ethnicity can help to identify the structural factors driving poorer outcomes for certain groups. Studies and policies aimed at reducing inequalities in disease exposure may reduce disparities in mortality more than those focused on drivers of case fatality.
Date made available2022

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