- Researchers say Black women are three times more likely to die from COVID-19 than white men.
- Experts say part of the reason is Black women tend to have more underlying conditions than white men.
- They also note that Black women generally have less access to social determinants such as quality healthcare.
- There is research to suggest that racism plays a role in both of these factors.
Researchers at GenderSci Lab at Harvard University in Massachusetts started by looking at two things scientists had already determined about COVID-19 death rates:
Men are dying of the disease at higher rates than women.
Black people are dying at higher rates than white people.
So, the Harvard researchers decided to look at an intersection of sex and race.
“We were interested in seeing how the sex disparity might vary by race and we weren’t really sure what we would find,” said Heather Shattuck-Heidorn, PhD, the study’s senior author and an assistant professor of women and gender studies at the University of Southern Maine in Portland.
Research by the numbers
The team conducted an observational study using data from Georgia and Michigan, two states that report COVID-19 deaths by age, sex, and race.
Their study was recently published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.
One of their findings was that Black women are dying at significantly higher rates than white men.
In Michigan, for example, the researchers found that the COVID-19 death rate for Black women was 147 per 100,000. The rate for white men was 39 per 100,000.
That’s more than three times as high for Black women.
Researchers found the rates in Georgia followed the same pattern.
Shattuck-Heidorn said that likely means the sex differences may not be tied to biology.
“It’s probably heavily influenced, if not primarily driven, by social factors,” she told Healthline. “That really matters because people have been suggesting using sex-based intervention like hormones in treating COVID-19, even sex-based vaccine strategies.”
Why the disparity?
Experts say it’s not surprising that the death rates would be so much higher for Black women than they are for white men.
Black women have more chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity, which make them more vulnerable to severe COVID-19.
“I think it has to do with the underlying conditions that Black women have and the fact that many of them are on the front lines as essential workers,” said Dr. James E. K. Hildreth, an infectious disease expert and president of Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee.
“I said from the beginning that our most vulnerable populations should get special attention in terms of prevention and mitigation,” Hildreth told Healthline.
“Now that we have vaccines rolling out, vulnerable populations should be among the first to get them,” he added. “But that was left up to the states to decide how to use them.”
Social determinants of health
Hildreth said much of this comes back to what scientists call the social determinants of health.
Those factors include your access to good healthcare, a quality education, the neighborhood you live in, the job you have, how much money you make, and what kind of community support systems you have.
“In some places your ZIP code is a better predictor of your health than almost anything else,” Hildreth said. “We can’t solve the problems without addressing all of those things.”
Shattuck-Heidorn said there’s research that racism plays a role.
“It’s been called structural racism or preexisting conditions within the U.S. that were driven by racism,” she said. “The outcome is that these things that were already present in our society get magnified by the pandemic.”
“I’m excited to see that across the country, at least in a lot of places, these difficult and challenging conversations are being had,” Hildreth said. “There’s every reason to be a little bit encouraged that maybe this time will be different.”