Healey links COVID-19 and race, poverty, pollution
Researcher: Variety of factors contribute to hotspots
ATTORNEY GENERAL Maura Healey on Tuesday sought to draw attention to the high correlation between COVID-19 infections and poor, minority communities with high rates of air pollution.
“While cities and towns across Massachusetts are reeling from this pandemic and its impacts, none have been hit harder than our immigrant, black and brown communities, and low-income communities,” Healey said in a call with reporters on Tuesday, after her office released a brief on the link between environmental factors and COVID-19. “We’ve understood there are real disparities that existed within these communities. This pandemic absolutely laid bare those disparities and exacerbated the disparities.”
Researchers at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health recently released a study that found increased exposure to air pollution was correlated with a higher death rate from COVID-19. Healey’s report was based on a separate study by researchers at Boston University’s School of Public Health that analyzed community-level COVID-19 data in Massachusetts.
The data showed a strong correlation between per capita coronavirus cases and race. Communities with large Latino populations (Chelsea and Lawrence) and large black populations (Brockton and Randolph) stood out as having among the most COVID-19 cases per capita. Other majority-minority communities such as Revere, Everett, Holyoke, and Lynn also stood out as coronavirus hotspots
Roseann Bongiovanni, executive director of GreenRoots, a Chelsea-based environmental organization, noted that Chelsea and the surrounding areas of East Boston and Everett are filled with jet fuel and heating fuel storage tanks, a massive wholesale produce market that draws thousands of trucks daily, and road salt depots. The communities experience the car, truck, and overhead airplane traffic generated by Logan Airport.
“Folks in Chelsea and East Boston have been saying for years that low-income communities would be hit worst and first during a climate crisis. We just didn’t know that a pandemic would actually be the climate crisis and cripple us,” Bongiovanni said.
But whether environment is among the major contributors to the coronavirus outbreaks or simply one of myriad risk factors is still an open question.
Jonathan Levy, professor and chair of the Department of Environmental Health at Boston University School of Public Health, who helped conduct the research, said the data show that the strongest predictor of COVID-19 hotspots was the racial and ethnic makeup of a community.
Levy said hotspots tend to have overcrowded housing, low-income individuals, and large percentages of essential workers. These people are continuing to work, whether at grocery stores or in hospitals, and many travel on public transportation, where they can be exposed to illness. They live in small houses where it is impossible for a sick resident to isolate from family members.
These are also the same communities that have environmental risk factors – high rates of air pollution, few green spaces, and buildings that are less tight in keeping out outside pollutants.
Levy said it is hard to isolate the root causes of outbreaks since many risk factors cluster geographically and demographically. “It may be very difficult to pull apart air pollution from housing, from essential worker status, if the same people are exposed to high levels of everything,” Levy said. “It reinforces the fact that these are communities that are hard hit by two, three, four, 10 factors simultaneously.”
Scientific research has shown that air pollution does increase rates of diseases like asthma and heart disease, all of which increase vulnerability to COVID-19. Levy said it is likely that while air pollution does not give someone COVID-19, someone who gets COVID-19 and has long been exposed to high rates of air pollution would have worse outcomes because of their heightened risk for other respiratory or pulmonary diseases.
As Healey said, “Air quality is a factor in one’s overall health.”
The Boston Globe on Saturday reported on a Harvard analysis of deaths by zip code that found a surge of fatalities during the outbreak of COVID-19 was occurring in communities with high concentrations of poverty, economic segregation, people of color, and crowded housing. The Harvard analysis looked at deaths reported through April 12.
CommonWealth separately reported that COVID-19 death data gathered by the state Department of Public Health indicate the racial imbalances that surface with cases of the disease diminish or even disappear when it comes to deaths associated with the virus. The state data is incomplete, but advocates who have highlighted the racial inequities associated with cases acknowledge the same does not appear to be true so far for deaths. Some have suggested the state’s abnormally high COVID-19 death rates in predominantly white nursing homes may be tilting the death statistics.The black community has been particularly vocal about the need to address disparities. At a Zoom press conference Friday, a coalition of black leaders from Boston said infection rates are still rising in the black community and the situation feels dire. “We feel like we’re in the middle of a death camp,” said former state senator Dianne Wilkerson.
Leaders on the Zoom call attributed the prevalence of the disease in the black community to several factors. Blacks are disproportionately represented in essential, high-contact industries like grocery workers or nursing assistants and tend to rely heavily on public transportation. They said black workers also hold hospitality and retail jobs where workers were discouraged from wearing masks early on.