Racial disparities among essential workers could be a key reason that black Americans are more likely than whites to contract and die of COVID-19, according to researchers at the University of Utah. They found that blacks disproportionately worked in nine vital occupations that increase their exposure to SARs-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

“There are a lot of theories why blacks are dying at higher rates than other races during this pandemic,” said Fares Qeadan, a UofU Health biostatistician and senior author of the study. “However, our descriptive study strongly suggests that blacks are not dying from COVID-19 because they are genetically more susceptible, have more comorbidities or aren’t taking the necessary precautions. Instead, it’s likely because they are working in jobs where they have a greater risk of coming in contact with the virus day in and day out.”

The study appears in a special issue of World Medical & Health Policy.

After analyzing demographic job data, the researchers found that blacks were nearly three times more likely than whites to work in healthcare support jobs such as nursing assistants or orderlies. Blacks were twice as likely to work in transportation roles such as bus drivers, movers and taxi drivers. Also, black Americans were more likely to serve in seven other occupations deemed essential during the pandemic: food preparation, building and grounds maintenance, police and protective services, personal care (childcare, hairstylists), office and administrative support, production (assemblers, painters, machinists), as well as social work and community services.

The researchers correlated these job classifications with COVID-19 deaths in 26 states and Washington, D.C. They concluded that all of these jobs placed workers at higher risk of infection and death from the novel disease. Police and protective services, healthcare support, transportation and food preparation were among those occupations most closely correlated with COVID-19 deaths.

This finding, Qeadan said, strongly implies that blacks are more likely to be exposed to COVID-19 on the job than whites. It also could help explain why blacks, who only represent 6 percent of the population in Wisconsin, for instance, accounted for more than 36 percent of the state’s COVID-19 deaths.

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