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Americans have lost more than 170,000 years of potential life due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with Black and Latinx people bearing the brunt of that toll, Harvard researchers determined in a study released June 12.
Led by Harvard School of Public Health professor Mary T. Bassett, HSPH researcher Jarvis Chen, and social epidemiology professor Nancy Krieger, researchers used the Years of Potential Life Lost statistic to specifically show disparities between racial and ethnic groups in the impact of COVID-19.
Chen said newly available data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention proved key to the findings.
“We were concerned fairly early on that the unequal situation in the United States in terms of systemic racial inequalities in health and socio-economic inequalities in health would be exacerbated by COVID,” Chen said. “When the CDC made data available in early May that gave the counts of COVID-19 deaths by race, ethnicity and age and started making that available for the national picture and also for the states, we wanted to use those data to see if we could really document some of these inequalities.”
To illuminate the unequal effect of COVID-19, the team used YPLL, a measure for the number of years collectively lost by a group of people due to a crisis. Chen said YPLL provides a new perspective on mortality rates in specific populations.
“Years of Potential Life Lost picks up this additional population impact and thinking about what's happening, particularly for deaths that occur at younger ages, and what is the impact of the years of lost life on the population,” Chen said.
The team calculated YPLL by approximating the total number of years between the age at death and age 65 for COVID-19 victims of different age groups and ethnicities.
That methodology revealed vast differences in COVID-19 mortality rates between racial and ethnic groups. Hispanic Americans have lost 48,204 years, Black Americans have lost 45,777 years, non-Hispanic white Americans have lost 33,446 years, and Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have lost 8,905 years of potential life due to the COVID-19 crisis, they found.
Because datasets on COVID-19 mortality rates are incomplete, Chen said his team also studied excess mortality — the number of deaths above the expected value in pre-pandemic conditions — to further understand COVID-19’s disparate impact on racial and ethnic groups.
“We've done some analyses in Massachusetts looking at excess mortality, and we do see that the excess mortality – starting at the end of March and going into April – there's a large surge in all causes of mortality in Massachusetts,” Chen said. “It's worse in more disadvantaged communities, in terms of poverty or non-white racial ethnic composition are crowding. And it also is larger than the number of deaths or the rate of deaths that we're seeing attributed to COVID-19 specifically.”
Based on the findings, Chen said next steps should focus on finding and combating the causes of the unequal effect of COVID-19 through further research and through government action.
“We do know there's a long history of research showing relationships between racism, discrimination, structural inequality, and the risk of those chronic diseases,” Chen said. “There needs to be more research on that, and then also, efforts on the part of government and other stakeholders and communities to try to put in place the resources that would help people mitigate that risk.”
—Staff writer Ethan Lee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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