- A new study finds that a disproportionate number of Latinos have died from COVID-19 due to workplace exposure to the coronavirus when compared with their non-Hispanic white counterparts.
- The study also found that, for Latinos in the United States, the largest excess COVID-19 case burden was among the working-age population.
- Experts say risk reduction is a critical component of protecting workers.
- Personal protective equipment and appropriate physical distancing should be a priority when possible.
According to a new study, a disproportionate number of Latinos in the United States have died from COVID-19 due to workplace exposure to the coronavirus compared with their non-Hispanic white counterparts.
While several explanations have been suggested — such as unequal access to healthcare and preexisting health conditions — the study authors say that no one had previously conducted tests to determine just what was driving this phenomenon.
To clarify just what was happening, the study authors decided to look at age-stratified patterns of COVID-19 deaths in relation to patterns of exposure to the coronavirus.
Largest burden is among working-age Latinos
The study authors were D. Phuong Do, PhD, associate professor of public health policy and administration at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and Reanne Frank, PhD, professor of sociology at The Ohio State University.
They said they were able to compare the case and death patterns by age for Latino people and non-Hispanic white people in the United States.
They found that, for Latinos in the United States, the largest excess COVID-19 case burden was among the working-age population.
In addition, this ran in parallel with the pattern they found for deaths due to COVID-19.
However, among non-Hispanic white people, they found lower than expected cases and deaths among working-age groups.
Before this, there had been no evidence showing excess burden in working-age groups for Latinos working in the United States.
These case and death patterns by age and ethnicity were consistent with the workplace vulnerability hypothesis, the authors said, because it’s known that Latinos are overrepresented in telecommute-unfriendly occupations such as food services, healthcare, public safety, and utilities.
Ruling out other competing hypotheses
Do and Frank said that preexisting conditions, unequal access to good healthcare, and intergenerational household structure are among the other hypotheses that have been proposed to explain the disproportionate deaths of Latinos from COVID-19.
However, they found that, among their data, Latinos in the United States actually have a lower rate of preexisting health conditions.
In addition, working-age Latinos have similar case death rates as non-Hispanic white people, meaning they were not having worse outcomes when they became ill.
Also, among older adults, Do and Frank found a lower case death rate when they compared Latinos people with non-Hispanic white people.
Further, they found no excess case burdens among the oldest Latino age group.
These patterns do not support any of the alternative hypotheses, said Do and Frank.
Why this type of research is important
Do and Frank said there’s an “impulse” when we’re trying to understand racial disparities in health to ignore the role of structural factors like work environments.
Their hope is that this research can help to “set the record straight” by showing that COVID-19 particularly affected people in the Latino community because they were overrepresented among the essential workers, who risked their lives.
Melva Thompson-Robinson, PhD, who was not involved in the study, is the executive director for the Center for Health Disparities Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
She explained that to best address the COVID-19 pandemic, “it is important to understand who is infected, affected, and dying, particularly in disproportionate numbers in comparison to the other all population as well as other racial and ethnic groups.”
Thompson-Robinson added, “This knowledge then allows the allocation of resources and the provision of additional services to address the undue burden of disease in those populations.”
What employers can do to help
“Employers need to better understand the risks that are present in essential industries and occupations that are not ‘telecommute-friendly,’” Thompson-Robinson said.
She said that sick leave is critical for employees who may be ill but feel unable to take off work due to lost wages.
Thompson-Robinson also pointed out that personal protective equipment (PPE) and appropriate physical distancing should be a priority when possible, and that COVID-19 vaccines should also be made easily available to employees.
“Risk reduction needs to be the key to protecting workers,” she said.
What workers can do to protect themselves
On their end, Thompson-Robinson said that employees need to stay home when they’re sick, although she acknowledged that this can be very hard to do if you do not have the needed sick leave and can’t afford to lose wages.
“Completing the COVID-19 vaccination process is also a key protective factor,” she said.
Finally, using PPE like masks and face shields and appropriate physical distancing are important ways that workers can keep themselves safe from infection.