New study reveals disparities in COVID-19 mortality by sex and race

Black men have the highest COVID-19 death rate, but Black women die at higher rates than white or Asian men. Via the GenderSci Lab.

We’ve spent a lot of time in the COVID-19 Data Dispatch discussing how the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted racial and ethnic minorities in the U.S., along with gaps and problems in the available data on this issue. (You can find past coverage here.)

A new study from the GenderSci Lab at Harvard sheds light on a more underreported side of the issue: how race and sex intersect in COVID-19 death rates. The lab has been tracking gender/sex and COVID-19 since April 2020, compiling data from states through a similar methodology to what the COVID Tracking Project did. And, similarly to the COVID Tracking Project, the GenderSci Lab faces challenges in producing a standardized dataset from 50 states that each have their own data definitions and reporting practices.

One of those challenges: very few states report COVID-19 data by both sex and other demographic factors, such as age and race/ethnicity. Such intersectional data are useful because they can provide more detailed information on who is most at risk from the disease, which may be tied to comorbidities and other social determinants of health.

For their recent study, GenderSci Lab researchers Tamara Rushovich et al. used data from the only two states that provide COVID-19 mortality data on sex, race, and age: Georgia and Michigan. The patterns they found in both states complicate the well-known trend that men are more likely to die of COVID-19 than women.

Black men have the highest death rate overall in Georgia and Michigan, significantly higher than white men. In Michigan, 254 out of every 100,000 Black men have died, compared to 39 out of every 100,000 white men. But the data also show that Black men and women both have significantly higher death rates compared with white and Asian men.

As the GenderSci Lab researchers note in a Twitter thread sharing this study, these data demonstrate that the sex difference in COVID-19 deaths is driven by comorbidities and social factors, not by some intrinsic, biological difference between men and women that makes men more vulnerable. Men may be less likely to wear masks or adhere to social distancing precautions, for example, and Black Americans are disproportionately represented in essential jobs and in incarcerated populations.

The researchers say that more data on this topic are needed (hello, other 48 states!) as well as more intersectional analysis:

Editor’s note, April 11, 6 PM: My friend (and CDD reader) Charlotte Minsky, who works on the COVID Racial Data Tracker, has pointed out that three states in addition to the two used in the GenderSci Lab’s analysis report COVID-19 mortality data by sex and race. Georgia and Michigan are the only two states to report by sex, race, and age; the researchers used age stratifications to calculate age-adjusted mortality rates. I’ve edited the post for clarification.

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