The claim that covid disproportionately impacted minority groups has been ubiquitous for more than a year. But it’s true? I decided to research using data from my own state, Minnesota. What I found may surprise you. This article is from the July issue of Thinking of Minnesota, which is now in the printer. The statistical work was done by my colleague Mitch Rolling, a master of the spreadsheet.
The claim that COVID-19 has disproportionately affected people of color is often heard and rarely, if ever, questioned. It is one of many cases in which politicians and activists identify “white privilege” and use that concept as the basis for their policies.
Here in Minnesota, it has been widely reported that minorities, and especially blacks, have suffered from COVID to a degree several times greater than whites. This assertion, repeated frequently and never questioned in the press, has been the basis for potentially discriminatory actions by the Walz administration. But is the disproportionate impact claim true?
In December 2020, a group of sociologists and others at the University of Minnesota produced a study that gave an initial boost to the idea that COVID devastated minority communities. His sensational conclusion was that black Minnesotans died of COVID at a rate more than five times that of Minnesota whites, while Latinos in Minnesota died of COVID at a rate more than four times that of Minnesotans. white, when adjusted for age.
This surprising conclusion garnered considerable publicity, all of it uncritical. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota donated $ 5 million to the University of Minnesota to establish a Center for Anti-Racism and Health Equity Research. In announcing this grant, the university’s press release stated: “During the pandemic, black Minnesotans are dying from COVID-19 at a rate five times higher than white Minnesotans when adjusted for age.”
Mpls. St. Paul Magazine wrote, linking to the study of sociologists:
[E]Excess mortality – “Mortality from COVID-19 along with deaths indirectly attributable to the pandemic” – has been higher for people of color, at a rate estimated to be about five times higher for blacks in Minnesota than for blacks. white …
Is it possible that this statement is true? The sociologists’ own study recognized obvious facts to the contrary:
Non-Hispanic white Minnesotans make up about 80 percent of the state’s population and about 82 percent of their COVID-19 deaths. This seeming lack of disparity may come as surprising, especially at a time when Minnesota has received national attention for its deep racial divide following the police murder of George Floyd.
So if whites accounted for 80 percent of Minnesotans and 82 percent of COVID deaths, as of the date of the study, how was COVID killing blacks and Latinos at levels several times higher than whites? ?
The authors of the University of Minnesota study did not base their analysis on death certificates that cite COVID as the cause of death, the normal measure of mortality from COVID. Rather, they analyzed the total death statistics for the various racial groups. They counted total mortality from all causes, excluding only homicide, suicide and accident, for the months of March to October 2020, and compared those figures with the average total mortality for each racial group in the years 2017 to 2019.
These authors justified the use of total mortality data, rather than COVID statistics from the Minnesota Department of Health, under the assumption that members of minority groups who died of COVID were less likely than whites to be diagnosed with it. disease. What evidence did the authors offer for that proposition? None. It was pure speculation. Furthermore, in 2020, 10.8 percent of all white deaths were attributed to COVID in the Department of Health database, while 13.8 percent of black deaths were attributed this way. This fact suggests that there is no merit in the theory that minority COVID deaths were somehow not recorded.
And that’s just the beginning of the problems with the sociologists report. Using the average of the crude mortality figures from 2017 to 2019 as a reference for comparison with the 2020 figures seems plausible, but it is a statistical trick that introduces a major error in the study. Minnesota’s black population has been growing and aging at a faster rate than the white population. As a result, the gross death toll for blacks has risen much faster than for whites, which remained virtually unchanged over the period from 2017 to 2019.
Specifically, during this three-year period, black deaths in Minnesota increased by 13 percent, while white deaths increased only 1.9 percent. If those rates of increased mortality are projected in 2020, and that number is used as the basis for comparing actual mortality, nearly a third of the supposed increase in black mortality in 2020, all of which the authors attribute to COVID. disappears. This is a good example of a statistical device that seems innocent, but seriously skews the results of a study.
The second source for the claim that minorities in Minnesota have been disproportionately affected by COVID is the Department of Health itself. The MDH website aggressively promotes a racial angle to the state’s COVID experience:
COVID-19 is exposing what has always been true: racism is pervasive and persistent. … We know that communities of color and indigenous communities do not need data to verify their experience. The purpose of this dashboard is to educate and motivate community leaders, nonprofits, foundations, governments, and corporations to work together to reduce and remove systemic barriers so that communities of color and indigenous communities can recover with dignity and resilience.
The Health Department evidently views its COVID statistics as an instrument of activism, but the data itself belies the Department’s racial interpretation, particularly with respect to mortality. The Department’s own figures show that whites and Native Americans, not blacks, Hispanics or Asians, are overrepresented as COVID victims.
As of June 3, the MDH dashboard shows that 6,188 whites have died from COVID, representing 0.139 percent of the white population. Among the “Latinx,” the totals are 81 deaths, or 0.072 percent of that population. Among blacks, the figures are 368 deaths or 0.100 percent of the black population. As for Asians, 288 have died with COVID on their death certificates, representing 0.101 percent of Minnesota’s Asian population. And finally, 101 Native Americans have died from or with COVID, or 0.169 percent of that population.
In other words, the MDH’s own records indicate that Native Americans and whites have died disproportionately from COVID, and that blacks, Hispanics, and Asians die at lower rates. In particular, whites, 80 percent of Minnesota’s population, are now overrepresented with 88 percent of COVID deaths.
There is no mystery as to why this is true. Minnesota’s white population is larger than most minority populations, and COVID is an overwhelmingly dangerous disease for the elderly, especially those who are already sick. This basic demographic fact explains why COVID has impacted white Minnesotans more than minority groups whose populations are, on average, younger.
The data compiled by MDH obviously does not support the “racism” narrative favored by the Walz administration, which is why the Department of Health has promoted “age-adjusted” COVID death estimates. On an “age-adjusted” basis, MDH states that all minority groups have higher COVID death rates than whites, with blacks at a ratio of about two and a half to one.
This “age adjustment” creates a hypothetical number of blacks (for example) who would have died if the age distribution of the black population were the same as the age distribution of the white population, according to the statistical methods of the Department, but that no, in fact, it dies. The “age-adjusted” fatality figures represent, at best, a counterfactual hypothesis and are not a competent basis on which to base public policy.
Despite obvious flaws in the methods used by both university sociologists and the state Department of Health, and despite the undeniable fact that Minnesota whites have died from COVID at a rate greater than their share of the population, The press has uncritically repeated these groups’ claims of racial disparity.
Worse still, the Walz administration has apparently relied on claims of disparate impact when designing its response to the epidemic. In particular, the administration may have engaged in racial discrimination in the distribution of COVID vaccines. Although its language is vague, an MDH guideline issued on March 3, 2021 describes “belonging to a community of color” as a risk factor to consider when prioritizing vaccine availability, and speaks of a “distribution and vaccine involvement that prioritizes disproportionately affected communities, settings, and populations. ”
The Walz administration has also prioritized the delivery of vaccines to federally qualified health centers, in addition to exempting those groups from the administration’s 72-hour distribution goal, because “they are vaccinating community members from black communities, indigenous peoples and of color at significantly higher rates than others. sites “.
Also, someone who uses the MDH website to sign up for the vaccine is asked questions about race, gender, and sexual orientation, but not asked about actual risk factors, such as obesity, diabetes, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. How this information is used has not been publicly disclosed.
If the Walz administration engaged in racial profiling by distributing the vaccine, it was, in all likelihood, illegal, a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. In a recent case, Greer’s Ranch Cafe vs. Isabella Casillas Guzmán, the Court held that COVID allegations that disproportionately impact women and minorities cannot justify racial and sexual discrimination when running a government program.
Race is not a risk factor for COVID. Aside from random variation, the reason for the modest differences in COVID mortality between various groups is that the actual risk factors for the disease (age, of course, but also obesity, diabetes, hypertension, disease chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, etc.) are not. evenly distributed throughout the population. The Walz administration’s misguided obsession with race is one reason it underperformed in publicizing the real risk factors for COVID and taking practical steps to protect the most vulnerable Minnesotans.
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