COVID-19 was deadly to 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 during the first year of the pandemic, according to a study.

The staggering disparity was revealed in a study of roughly 69,000 US coronavirus victims ages 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’s authors found that 68% of the deaths they studied were among people considered to be in a low socioeconomic position, defined as workers whose education stopped at high school. Only about 12% of deaths occurred among people in high socioeconomic positions, defined as those with at least a bachelor’s degree.

The researchers said the majority of working-class adults in the US 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 hazardous conditions of work were a primary driver of joint socioeconomic, gender, and racial/ethnic disparities in COVID-19 mortality,” the researchers wrote.

Working-class employees faced “elevated infection risks,” according to a USF summary of the study, compared to higher-paid workers who were “more likely to have fewer exposure risks, options to work remotely, paid sick leave and better access to quality” health care.”

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

Though the 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 still at higher risk of sickness and death.

He said the study’s findings offer a warning about how the pathogen can deeply impact vulnerable communities.

Talk of “getting 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?

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

The study was published in April in the peer-reviewed International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. The research team collected provisional COVID-19 death data 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 educational 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 those in high socioeconomic positions, the rate was 14.6 deaths per 100,000.

The researchers discovered other disparities:

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

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The COVID-19 vaccine for ages 5 and up and booster shots for eligible recipients are being administered at doctors’ offices, clinics, pharmacies, grocery stores and public vaccination sites. Many allow appointments to be booked online. Here’s how to find a site near you:

Find the website: Visit vaccines.gov to find vaccination sites in your ZIP code.

More help: Call the National COVID-19 Vaccination Assistance Hotline.

  • Phone: 800-232-0233. Help is available in English, Spanish and other languages.
  • TTY: 888-720-7489
  • Disability Information and Access Line: Call 888-677-1199 or email DIAL@n4a.org.

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