Racial Disparities in Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Mortality Are Driven by Unequal Infection Risks

Clin Infect Dis. 2021 Mar 1;72(5):e88-e95. doi: 10.1093/cid/ciaa1723.


Background: As of 1 November 2020, there have been >230 000 deaths and 9 million confirmed and probable cases attributable to severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) in the United States. However, this overwhelming toll has not been distributed equally, with geographic, race/ethnic, age, and socioeconomic disparities in exposure and mortality defining features of the US coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) epidemic.

Methods: We used individual-level COVID-19 incidence and mortality data from the state of Michigan to estimate age-specific incidence and mortality rates by race/ethnic group. Data were analyzed using hierarchical Bayesian regression models, and model results were validated using posterior predictive checks.

Results: In crude and age-standardized analyses we found rates of incidence and mortality more than twice as high than for Whites for all groups except Native Americans. Blacks experienced the greatest burden of confirmed and probable COVID-19 (age-standardized incidence, 1626/100 000 population) and mortality (age-standardized mortality rate, 244/100 000). These rates reflect large disparities, as Blacks experienced age-standardized incidence and mortality rates 5.5 (95% posterior credible interval [CrI], 5.4-5.6) and 6.7 (95% CrI, 6.4-7.1) times higher than Whites, respectively. We found that the bulk of the disparity in mortality between Blacks and Whites is driven by dramatically higher rates of COVID-19 infection across all age groups, particularly among older adults, rather than age-specific variation in case-fatality rates.

Conclusions: This work suggests that well-documented racial disparities in COVID-19 mortality in hard-hit settings, such as Michigan, are driven primarily by variation in household, community, and workplace exposure rather than case-fatality rates.

Keywords: COVID-19; SARS-CoV-2; disparities; social epidemiology.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Bayes Theorem
  • Black or African American
  • COVID-19*
  • Health Status Disparities
  • Humans
  • Michigan
  • Mortality
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • United States / epidemiology