During the early phases of the pandemic, it was well reported that Latino people across California were dying from COVID at a significantly higher rate than their share of the state’s population, and Black communities were similarly affected though to a smaller degree. But as vaccines against the virus became available early last year, a demographic shift took place, which has gone virtually unnoticed. According to a new study from UC Santa Cruz, Stanford University, and UC San Francisco, COVID began killing proportionally more middle-aged white Californians than any other racial group.
“The dominant narrative in the media at the time was about how much success vaccination was having with creating large declines in overall mortality, but this research shows that it’s also important to pay close attention to proportional changes within racial and ethnic groups,” said Alicia Riley, an assistant professor of sociology at UC Santa Cruz and one of the leaders of the research.
The study, which took place from March to July 2021, looked at the proportion of California’s COVID deaths among racial groups. Researchers found that by July, the proportion of COVID deaths among whites between the ages of 40 to 64 had increased from 17 percent to 36 percent, researchers said.
Meanwhile, the proportion of COVID deaths among middle-aged Latino people dropped from 66 percent to 30 percent, closing one of the largest longstanding equity gaps of the pandemic.
“What this study reminds us is that we can’t just assume that COVID-19 is a disease that impacts those communities over there or those people over there and then just get comfortable,” Riley told the Sacramento Bee. “Even though, for much of the pandemic, Latino Californians were those who were hardest hit and were experiencing disproportionate deaths due to COVID, that shifted.”
Researchers say there are multiple factors as to what caused these trends for Latino populations—who had a fully vaccinated rate of roughly 24 percent by early May—including a combination of vaccine-induced and natural immunity.
“The 2020 winter COVID-19 surge hit Latino communities especially hard, resulting in a lot of deaths but also likely some natural immunity, which vaccination then built upon,” Riley said. “There were also widespread efforts, from the state to the local level, taking place over this time period to try to reduce these disparities by reaching people with testing and vaccination, and that’s likely playing a role in some of this too.”
On the other hand, researchers say the increase of COVID deaths among white Californians—despite having an estimated 41 percent vaccination rate by early May—could reflect a combination of vaccine hesitancy in some more rural and conservative predominantly-white communities and overall lower immunity, since white people were disproportionately spared from earlier infection. By comparison, Asian Californians, who had an estimated vaccination rate of roughly 50 percent by May, have maintained fewer deaths than their share of the state’s population since that time.
“Part of what is closing this equity gap and making disparities look like they’re improving is that whites are now dying at a higher proportion,” Riley said. “They’re kind of losing the advantage that they enjoyed for the first part of the pandemic, and that has really shifted during the vaccination period.”
The study also revealed another alarming revelation: Despite Black Californians having a roughly 26 percent vaccination rate—slightly higher than Latinos—their proportion of COVID deaths among middle-aged people increased from 6 percent to 21 percent during this time period. Differences in prior exposure and resulting natural immunity may be contributing to these trends, researchers said.
“This really is concerning, because it highlights how the structural forces driving some of these disparities may be different for different racial and ethnic groups, and some of those factors may be more intractable than others,” Riley said. “For example, differential workplace exposure may be easier to eliminate through policy than structural discrimination in the health care system.”
Scientists say additional research will be needed to understand the potential causes of these disparities and what policy actions may have affected equity gaps.
“I think there’s a lot to be learned about vaccine rollout in different racial and ethnic groups in different areas,” said Mathew Kiang, an assistant professor of epidemiology and population health at Stanford University and a joint-first author of the paper alongside Riley. “Vaccination campaigns are often implemented as one-size-fits-all, but we clearly see racially patterned uptake and room for improvement.”
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