Impact of Social Vulnerability on COVID-19 Incidence and Outcomes in the United States

medRxiv. 2020 Apr 17;2020.04.10.20060962. doi: 10.1101/2020.04.10.20060962. Preprint


Importance Prior pandemics have disparately affected socially vulnerable communities. Whether regional variations in social vulnerability to disasters influence COVID-19 outcomes and incidence in the U.S. is unknown. Objective To examine the association of Social Vulnerability Index (SVI), a percentile-based measure of county-level social vulnerability to disasters, and its sub-components (socioeconomic status, household composition, minority status, and housing type/transportation accessibility) with the case fatality rate (CFR) and incidence of COVID-19. Design Ecological study of counties with at least 50 confirmed COVID-19 cases as of April 4th, 2020. Generalized linear mixed-effects models with state-level clustering were applied to estimate county-level associations of overall SVI and its sub-component scores with COVID-19 CFR (deaths/100 cases) and incidence (cases/1000 population), adjusting for population percentage aged >65 years, and for comorbidities using the average Hierarchical Condition Category (HCC) score. Counties with high SVI (≥median) and high CFR (≥median) were identified. Setting Population-based study of U.S. county-level data. Participants U.S. counties with at least 50 confirmed COVID-19 cases. Main outcomes and measures COVID-19 CFR and incidence. Results Data from 433 counties including 283,256 cases and 6,644 deaths were analyzed. Median SVI was 0.46 [Range: 0.01-1.00], and median CFR and incidence were 1.9% [Range: 0-13.3] and 1.2 per 1000 people [Range: 0.6-38.8], respectively. Higher SVI, indicative of greater social vulnerability, was associated with higher CFR (RR: 1.19 [1.05, 1.34], p=0.005, per-1 unit increase), an association that strengthened after adjustment for age>65 years and comorbidities (RR: 1.63 [1.38, 1.91], p<0.001), and was further confirmed in a sensitivity analysis limited to six states with the highest testing levels. Although the association between overall SVI and COVID-19 incidence was not significant, the SVI sub-components of socioeconomic status and minority status were both predictors of higher incidence and CFR. A combination of high SVI (≥0.46) and high adjusted CFR (≥2.3%) was observed in 28.9% of counties. Conclusions and Relevance Social vulnerability is associated with higher COVID-19 case fatality. High social vulnerability and CFR coexist in more than 1 in 4 U.S. counties. These counties should be targeted by public policy interventions to help alleviate the pandemic burden on the most vulnerable population.

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