It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected nonwhite individuals, with Black Americans over three times more likely to contract the virus than white Americans. But now, a new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that the racial disparity may be equally deadly among those under 21.
Published in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, the study looked at the 121 total SARS-CoV-2-associated deaths among those under age 21 from Feb. 12 to July 31 and found that 78 percent of them were among Hispanic, Black and American Indian/Alaskan Native (AI/AN) individuals. The deaths were linked either to COVID-19 or the pediatric inflammatory syndrome known as MIS-C, both of which are caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
The deaths — nearly half of which occurred among those ages 18 to 20 — represent a small fraction of the 391,814 total confirmed cases of COVID-19 or MIS-C in that age group during that time frame. Still, the findings are an important indicator of who is most vulnerable to COVID-19, including not only nonwhite individuals and teens, but those with preexisting medical conditions (of which 75 percent of those who died possessed at least one).
“These data show that nearly three-quarters of SARS-CoV-2–associated deaths among infants, children, adolescents, and young adults have occurred in persons aged 10-20 years, with a disproportionate percentage among young adults aged 18-20 years and among Hispanics, Blacks, AI/ANs, and persons with underlying medical conditions,” the study reads.
The most common preexisting condition was chronic lung disease (such as asthma), followed by obesity, neurologic conditions and cardiovascular issues. Although the vast majority of those who were already battling a chronic illness, 30 of the 121 individuals — 25 percent — were listed as “previously healthy,” with “no underlying medical conditions.”
The researchers note that the number of Black, Hispanic and AI/AN deaths was striking given that these groups represent just 41 percent of the population. The authors mention three contributing factors, including that these groups are more likely to be essential workers (and therefore at higher risk of exposure to COVID-19), to live in multigenerational, crowded living situations, and to experience “challenges in seeking care.”
Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease expert and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, says the results are not unexpected. “We know that the virus has had a disproportionate impact on populations based on demographics,” says Adalja. “So it’s not surprising that it holds even in younger age groups who are not generally represented among the hospitalized or the dead, but when they are, they still follow that same pattern that you’re seeing in the adult population.”
Adalja mentions certain factors that fall under the umbrella of what’s called social determinants of health, defined by the World Health Organization as “the conditions in which people are born, grow, work, live, and age, and the wider set of forces and systems shaping the conditions of daily life.” As the CDC authors noted, these may provide insight into what’s fueling the discrepancy.
“We know that there are socioeconomic factors in terms of how well people can social distance, and many of these individuals may have had essential worker parents who can’t socially distance themselves,” says Adalja. “Also, the majority of individuals in that study had comorbid conditions — including chronic lung disease, such as asthma, which is higher in certain demographics.” He further notes that young people, whom some studies have shown are less likely to have symptoms, may not have been taken to get treatment as quickly as adults.
The results are a grim example of how systemic oppression and racism contribute to health disparities in the U.S. — and underscore the need to address both problems nationally. But Adalja says in terms of the implications for schools reopening, parents should not be concerned that the report puts young people overall at higher risk. “It’s still a rarity that a young person has a severe case,” says Adalja. “It’s not that it doesn’t happen, but it happens rarely.”
For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.
Read more from Yahoo Life
Want lifestyle and wellness news delivered to your inbox? Sign up here for Yahoo Life’s newsletter.