Prostock-studio -

To See COVID Racial Health Disparities, Look at Premature Death Rates

Despite accounting for 40 percent of the total population, communities of color comprised 59 percent of the lost life years during the pandemic, exposing racial health disparities.

To truly get a handle on the racial health disparities that opened up during the COVID-19 pandemic, take a look at the years of life lost, Kaiser Family Foundation researchers say. In a new analysis from the Peterson-KFF Health System Tracker, communities of color had higher premature death rates than White populations, adding up to stark disparities in lost years of life.

Said otherwise, young people of color were more likely to die young during the pandemic than their White counterparts.

The news of COVID-related racial health disparities is not new. Even back in April of 2020, researchers were clocking more—and more severe—infections in Black, Hispanic, American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN), and Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander populations than in White populations.

This latest analysis demonstrates those disparities in another way by looking at excess years of life lost to the pandemic. Defined as deaths by any cause occurring before age 75 (the average life expectancy before the pandemic), premature death and years of life lost are heartbreaking measures of the pandemic’s impact.

By looking at premature death rates, the researchers were able to see exactly how differently the pandemic impacted different racial groups.

Premature mortality rose across all racial groups, the researchers remarked, but the change was more pronounced for racial minorities than for White people. While all-cause mortality for people under 75 between 2019 and 2022 increased by 14 percent for White people, it shot up by a whopping 33 percent for Hispanic and AI/AN people.

For Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islanders, that increase was 28 percent. The data showed a 22 percent increase for Asian people and 21 percent for Black people. AI/AN and Black people continue to have the highest premature death rates.

That all adds up to racial health disparities in years of lost life. AI/AN populations saw 22 years of lost life, compared to 19.9 years for Hispanic populations, 18.8 for Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander people, and 18.3 years for Black populations. In contrast, Asian populations saw 14 years of lost life during the pandemic, and White people saw 12.5 years.

Populations of color are carrying a disproportionate burden of lost life years, the researchers added. Despite comprising around 40 percent of the total US population, people of color accounted for 59 percent of the lost life years during the pandemic.

Moreover, this trend has not leveled out over time; in 2020, premature death rates for populations of color generally dwarfed those of White people. That pattern persisted in 2021 and 2022, the data showed, although in 2021 Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander populations became the group with the second-highest premature death rates, taking the place of Black communities.

The researchers did acknowledge that some other causes of death, like drug overdose deaths, may have contributed to these disparities. However, institutional inequities are likely at play and made it more likely for young people to contract COVID-19 and suffer more from it.

“During the pandemic, younger people of color may have been more likely to be exposed to the virus as they are more likely to have employment and living conditions that increase risk of exposures,” the report authors said. “Additionally, some groups of color have higher rates of underlying conditions that may have increased the risk of severe illness and death if people contracted the virus.”

Institutional racism and inequity may have also led to lower patient care access, which could have contributed to adverse outcomes communities of color faced when they did test positive for COVID.

“The finding that people of color experienced higher rates of years of life lost from excess deaths during the pandemic has significant implications for the health and economic well-being of those family members left behind,” the researchers concluded. “Higher rates of premature deaths in some groups will likely lead to long-lasting and generational impacts and may contribute to widening health and economic inequities moving forward.”

Next Steps

Dig Deeper on Patient data access

xtelligent Health IT and EHR