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How the demographics of COVID-19 deaths has changed since vaccinations became available

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

We've heard repeatedly from officials that this is now a pandemic of the unvaccinated. Most of the people now dying and getting sick have not been inoculated against COVID-19. So does that mean that the demographic makeup of who's being impacted by this pandemic has changed? To answer that question, we're joined now by Samantha Artiga. She's the vice president and director of the Racial Equity and Health Policy Program at Kaiser Family Foundation.

Welcome to the program.

SAMANTHA ARTIGA: Thanks so much for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: At the beginning of this pandemic, it was overwhelmingly Blacks and Latinos who were being impacted. They were the front-line workers - right? - those who were in lower income communities with systemic issues, with access to health care. And they had possibly underlying conditions. Has that changed since the vaccine?

ARTIGA: So what we see when we look at cumulative data since the pandemic began is that we continue to see disparities in terms of higher rates of infection and illness and death among people of color. And in particular, when we take into account age differences, those disparities are even larger. But when we look at the trends in the data over time, what we are seeing is that the disparities in illness and death, particularly for Black and Hispanic people, have been narrowing over time. And so those gaps are not as large as they were during earlier stages of the pandemic.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So I guess the difference is that the vaccine has come online. What do you think is accounting for that narrowing of the racial disparities?

ARTIGA: So I think certainly one key factor is the vaccination rollout. The vaccinations have provided increased protections across racial and ethnic groups, and we've seen that although Hispanic and Black people were less likely to have gotten vaccinated during the earlier parts of the vaccination rollout, that those disparities in vaccinations are also now narrowing. I think at the same time, there are a range of other factors that may be influencing these trends, including increased spread of the virus among the white population due to a variety of factors.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We've seen a lot of stories - right? - about how it is impacting predominantly white communities in the Midwest and the South, for example, where people might not want to get vaccinated for a variety of reasons, but some of them may be political. How close is that disparity now between whites and people of color in terms of the impacts of this?

ARTIGA: So when we look at the very latest data on case rates and death rates, there is little difference in terms of rates per 100,000 among white, Black and Hispanic people. Again, this is not controlling for age. When we control for age, usually, we see larger disparities because people of color tend to be a younger population. If we look at the - how the pandemic has evolved over time, initially, much of the surge was in urban areas, which are more racially diverse. We've now seen since late 2020 that a lot of the virus has been occurring in more rural areas. At the same time, we know that there are lower vaccination rates among rural areas and that rural areas are home to larger shares of white residents. So that geographic change over time in the spread of the virus may be leading to increased spread among the white population.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How do you expect these trends to change, if at all, when children under the age of 12 start getting vaccinated?

ARTIGA: Well, we know that children under 12 are a particularly racially diverse population. I think the expansion of eligibility for the vaccines to children under 12 will also continue to narrow some of the gaps that we still see in vaccination rates because they include larger shares of children of color. So really, that expansion just heightens the continued focus on equity as we continue to work to increase vaccination rates and recover from the pandemic.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Last question - obviously, this country's been brutalized by the delta variant - 2,000 deaths a day, although those numbers are going down. As someone who looks at this data for a living, what are your thoughts about what we'll see going forward?

ARTIGA: I think it's important to recognize that while the demographic patterns of who's being most affected by the pandemic right now are shifting, that the underlying structural inequities that placed people of color and low-income populations at increased risk at the outset of the pandemic have not changed. And so they still remain at increased risk as the pandemic continues to evolve and as potential future health threats may emerge.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Samantha Artiga of the Kaiser Family Foundation. Thank you very much.

ARTIGA: Thanks so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.