How Educational Attainment Impacted COVID-19 Mortality Rates Among African Americans

A study led by senior author Jason Salemia, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of South Florida, provides strong evidence on why COVID-19 death rates were higher among Blacks and other groups that on average have lower levels of education and lower incomes.

Researchers analyzed nearly 70,000 adults, ages 25 to 64, who died from COVID-19. The team found 68 percent of COVID-19 deaths in the first year of the pandemic were low socioeconomic positions (SEP) adults employed in labor, service, and retail jobs that required on-site attendance and prolonged close contact with others.

The team categorized each person’s SEP by their level of education – low SEP adults had no education beyond high school, intermediate SEP had at least one year of college attendance and high SEP adults had at minimum a bachelor’s degree. Researchers found that the mortality rate of low SEP adults is five times higher when compared to high SEP adults, and the mortality rate of intermediate SEP adults is two times higher. White women make up the largest population group considered high SEP. In contrast, nearly 60 percent of Hispanic men are in a low SEP. When compared, the mortality rate of low SEP Hispanic men is 27 times higher than high SEP White women.

The findings reveal a person’s level of education is strongly associated with occupation segregation – with the majority of low SEP adults employed in working-class jobs. The research team confirmed hazardous conditions of work, like working in close proximity with others, were primary drivers of disparities in COVID-19 mortality rates. Elevated infection risks were amplified across multiple social-environmental scales for working-class adults, especially when compared to high SEP 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 full study, “Joint Effects of Socioeconomic Position, Race/Ethnicity, and Gender on COVID-19 Mortality Among Working-Age Adults in the United States,” was published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. It may be accessed here.

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