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COVID was deadly to working-class Americans in 2020, says USF researcher

A study found that blue collar, service and retail workers who couldn’t work at home were far more vulnerable than those in higher-paying jobs.
Andrew Ghattas, left, watches as server Washington Garcia, center, carves a meat selection table side at Terra Gaucha in Tampa on Sept. 9, 2020. The restaurant took several COVID-19 precautions.  A recent study found that Americans employed in blue collar, service or retail jobs died of COVID-19 at five times the rate of those in higher socioeconomic positions during the first year of the pandemic.
Andrew Ghattas, left, watches as server Washington Garcia, center, carves a meat selection table side at Terra Gaucha in Tampa on Sept. 9, 2020. The restaurant took several COVID-19 precautions. A recent study found that Americans employed in blue collar, service or retail jobs died of COVID-19 at five times the rate of those in higher socioeconomic positions during the first year of the pandemic. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]
Published Jun. 3

TAMPA — Working-class Americans died of COVID-19 at five times the rate of those in higher socioeconomic positions during the first year of the pandemic, according to a study.

The staggering disparity was revealed in a study of roughly 69,000 U.S. coronavirus victims ages 25 to 64 who died in 2020. It was conducted by a group of researchers including University of South Florida epidemiologist Jason Salemi.

The study’s authors found that 68% of the deaths they studied were among people considered to be in a low socioeconomic position, defined as workers whose education stopped at high school. Only about 12% of deaths occurred among people in high socioeconomic positions, defined as those with at least a bachelor’s degree.

Related: Tampa Bay has ‘high’ COVID levels, masks recommended indoors

The researchers said the majority of working-class adults in the U.S. were employed in blue collar, service or retail jobs and couldn’t work remotely in the first year of the virus, before vaccines became widely available in 2021.

“Our results support the hypothesis that hazardous conditions of work were a primary driver of joint socioeconomic, gender, and racial/ethnic disparities in COVID-19 mortality,” the researchers wrote.

Working-class employees faced “elevated infection risks,” according to a USF summary of the study, compared to higher-paid workers who were “more likely to have fewer exposure risks, options to work remotely, paid sick leave and better access to quality health care.”

Related: How the CDC’s COVID warning system fails Tampa Bay and Florida

The report comes as Florida and several parts of the nation grapple with high levels of COVID-19 transmission driven by contagious omicron subvariants. The Tampa Bay region is considered to be at “high” risk of infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends wearing masks in indoor public spaces.

Though the research is based on deaths that occurred in 2020 — before vaccines reduced COVID-19 mortality across the board — Salemi said he believes working-class people are still at higher risk of sickness and death.

He said the study’s findings offer a warning about how the pathogen can deeply impact vulnerable communities.

Talk of “getting back to normal,” he said, means “very different things” to different people in the U.S.

“Some people are still going to be in the line of fire,” Salemi said.

Related: Tracking COVID in wastewater is the future — but not in Florida

The question facing the country, he said, is what can be done to help working-class employees stay safe?

His solutions: Improve ventilation in buildings to reduce indoor transmission; wear high-quality masks indoors to reduce infections; and institute paid sick leave so the infected can stay home instead of spreading the virus.

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The study was published in April in the peer-reviewed International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. The research team collected provisional COVID-19 death data from the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics. Deaths were included if COVID-19 was listed as an underlying or contributing cause of death. The center uses educational levels to measure socioeconomic status.

The study found that the age-adjusted COVID-19 death rate for working-class adults was 72.2 deaths per 100,000. For those in high socioeconomic positions, the rate was 14.6 deaths per 100,000.

The researchers discovered other disparities:

  • The age-adjusted COVID-19 death rate of working-class Hispanic men was more than 27 times higher than the death rate for white women in higher socioeconomic jobs.
  • Working-class Black men had a death rate that was nearly 20 times higher than the death rate for white women who graduated from a four-year college.
  • The death rate for working-class Black women was about 13 times higher than the rate for white women with at least a bachelor’s degree.
  • Working-class white men had a death rate roughly four times higher than the rate for white men in high socioeconomic positions.

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How to get tested

Tampa Bay: The Times can help you find the free, public COVID-19 testing sites in the bay area.

Florida: The Department of Health has a website that lists testing sites in the state. Some information may be out of date.

The U.S.: The Department of Health and Human Services has a website that can help you find a testing site.

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How to get vaccinated

The COVID-19 vaccine for ages 5 and up and booster shots for eligible recipients are being administered at doctors’ offices, clinics, pharmacies, grocery stores and public vaccination sites. Many allow appointments to be booked online. Here’s how to find a site near you:

Find a site: Visit vaccines.gov to find vaccination sites in your ZIP code.

More help: Call the National COVID-19 Vaccination Assistance Hotline.

Phone: 800-232-0233. Help is available in English, Spanish and other languages.

TTY: 888-720-7489

Disability Information and Access Line: Call 888-677-1199 or email DIAL@n4a.org.

• • •

More coronavirus coverage

OMICRON VARIANT: Omicron changed what we know about COVID. Here’s the latest on how the infectious COVID-19 variant affects masks, vaccines, boosters and quarantining.

KIDS AND VACCINES: Got questions about vaccinating your kid? Here are some answers.

BOOSTER SHOTS: Confused about which COVID booster to get? This guide will help.

BOOSTER QUESTIONS: Are there side effects? Why do I need it? Here’s the answers to your questions.

PROTECTING SENIORS: Here’s how seniors can stay safe from the virus.

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