It's a scene playing out in disadvantaged neighborhoods across the country: Clinics typically filled with Black and Latino residents are now brimming with older white adults from other areas eager to get the coveted COVID-19 vaccine. The latest data analyzed by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) shows a national pattern of African Americans and Hispanics receiving fewer vaccinations compared with their share of COVID-19 cases and deaths, as well as with their total population. “This really aligns with what we've seen throughout this entire pandemic: It's disproportionately affected older adults, but especially those from communities of color,” says Tricia Neuman, senior vice president of KFF. Both Black and Latino Americans are more than twice as likely as white Americans to die from complications of COVID-19, at every age, and Black people are dying from COVID at roughly the same rate as white people more than a decade older.
But the pandemic simply exacerbates what health care advocates have long known. “These are not new problems — we have seen these health disparities in pretty much all the diseases that impact older adults, whether it's cataracts or type 2 diabetes,” notes Folasade May, M.D., assistant professor of medicine at UCLA. This in turn impacts longevity in key ways. A study published in January in JAMA found that nationwide death rates among Black populations for all causes were 24 percent higher than among white populations, resulting in almost 75,000 more deaths each year among Black Americans. But May stresses that it's not about race or color. Instead, the troubling statistics boil down to the socioeconomic and environmental context of these communities.
Why this population is so vulnerable
White people in the U.S. live, on average, about 3.6 years longer than Black Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), with life expectancies of 79.1 and 75.5, respectively. One reason is that Black and Hispanic Americans have higher rates of chronic diseases such as high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes. “Unfortunately, when you are poor, you are more likely to be Black or brown, with less access to things such as healthy food or a gym for exercise,” May says. “This group also has lower rates of cancer screening: My patients say to me that they have so many competing demands in their life, that it's the last thing they have time for. That's so different from more affluent patients, who walk into their doctor's office wanting to know everything they need to do to optimize their health.” This is one reason why cancer rates are higher among Black Americans, she notes.