COVID-19 was deadly for working-class Americans in 2020, researcher says

TAMPA, Fla. — Working-class Americans died of COVID-19 at five times the rate of those in higher socioeconomic positions in the first year of the pandemic, a study has found.

The staggering disparity was revealed in a study of around 69,000 US coronavirus victims aged 25 to 64 who died in 2020. It was conducted by a group of researchers, including University of South Florida epidemiologist Jason Salemi.

The study authors found that 68% of the deaths they studied involved people considered to be in a disadvantaged socio-economic position, defined as workers whose education stopped in high school. Only about 12% of deaths occurred among people in high socio-economic positions, defined as those with at least a bachelor’s degree.

Researchers said the majority of working-class adults in the United States were employed in blue-collar, service, or retail jobs and couldn’t work remotely in the first year of the virus, before vaccines became widely available in 2021.

“Our results support the hypothesis that unsafe working conditions were the primary driver of socioeconomic, gender, and racial/ethnic disparities in COVID-19 mortality,” the researchers wrote.

Working-class employees faced ‘high infection risks’, according to a USF study summary, compared to higher-paid workers who were ‘more likely to have lower risk of exposure , options for working remotely, paid sick days and better access to quality health care.”

The report comes as Florida and several parts of the country grapple with high levels of COVID-19 transmission driven by contagious omicron subvariants. The Tampa Bay area is considered at “high” risk for infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends wearing masks in indoor public spaces.

Although research is based on deaths that occurred in 2020 – before vaccines reduced COVID-19 mortality across the board – Salemi said he believes working-class people are always at a higher risk of illness and death.

He said the study results offer a warning about how the pathogen can have a profound impact on vulnerable communities.

Talk of ‘going back to normal’, he said, means ‘very different things’ to different people in the US

“Some people are still going to be in the line of fire,” Salemi said.

The question facing the country, he said, is what can be done to help working-class employees stay safe?

Its solutions: Improve the ventilation of buildings to reduce indoor transmission; wear high-quality masks indoors to reduce infections; and instituting paid sick leave so those infected can stay home instead of spreading the virus.

The study was published in April in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. The research team collected preliminary data on COVID-19-related deaths from the US National Center for Health Statistics. Deaths were included if COVID-19 was listed as an underlying or contributing cause of death. The center uses education levels to measure socioeconomic status.

The study found that the age-adjusted COVID-19 death rate for working-class adults was 72.2 deaths per 100,000. For people in high socioeconomic positions, the rate was 14.6 deaths per 100,000.

The researchers found other disparities:

  • The age-adjusted COVID-19 death rate for working-class Hispanic men was more than 27 times higher than the death rate for white women in higher socioeconomic occupations.
  • Working-class black men had nearly 20 times the death rate of white women who graduated from a four-year college.
  • The death rate for working-class black women was about 13 times higher than for white women with at least a bachelor’s degree.
  • Working-class white men had a death rate about four times that of white men in high socioeconomic positions.

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