A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention highlights the racial and gender divides of the coronavirus pandemic, this time among a group of people who have been considered relatively safe from covid-19′s worst impacts: young adults.
According to the analysis, among young people between the ages of 15 and 24, women of color were most likely to contract the virus over the last year.
The report, based on data collected from 16 U.S. jurisdictions, looked at fluctuations in covid cases since the start of the pandemic. At the outset, young people of color were much more likely than their White peers to contract covid. As the pandemic progressed, some of those gaps have closed, but overall, young women of color tested positive for covid at higher rates than others in their age group.
According to the report, girls didn’t show higher rates of infection for covid until the age of 15. Rates of infection were highest among young women who identified as Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander, followed by Native American women and Latinas.
Lorna Thorpe, who leads the epidemiology division at New York University’s Department of Population Health, applauded the study for showing the evolution of the pandemic and how different populations experienced covid throughout the last year.
“One thing that stood out to me was you consistently see women as having slightly higher rates than men,” said Thorpe. To her, the disparities among young adults mirror larger trends.
The reasons for these overlapping disparities are likely tied to the kind of work young adult women do, both in and outside of the home, and the kinds of homes they live in, Thorpe said.
Throughout the pandemic, women have been overrepresented in front-line jobs that expose them to the virus, from working as cashiers at grocery stores to caring for the elderly in nursing homes. Women of color, in particular, make up a disproportionate amount of low-wage jobs in the service industry, where there are less protections, such as sick leave.
The CDC’s findings track with larger pandemic trends that have emerged for women of color, noted Haeyoung Yoon, senior director of policy for the National Domestic Workers Alliance.
“It’s possible that [young women] may have a part-time job, but I think what that tracks is the disparity along economics,” said Yoon, who speculates that they are part of a larger group of essential workers who “do not have job security or paid time off, or cannot be teleworking from their home.”
For these young women of color, there is also a higher likelihood of living in a multigenerational home, which brings additional risk to contracting the virus if multiple members are working in high-risk, essential jobs, said Yoon.
More people entering and leaving the home on a regular basis instantly makes social distancing challenging, added Thorpe, and young adult women’s role as informal caregivers in their own households can make them particularly vulnerable.
During the pandemic, women of all ages have taken on more family responsibilities, from caring for children and younger siblings to navigating vaccination appointments for elderly family members.
But among communities of color, the new CDC study finds some young women appear more vulnerable than others.
At the start of the pandemic, all non-White young people were more likely to contract covid than their White peers, according to the study. But between May and August, covid rates leveled out for Asians. After September, the gap in covid rates between young Black and White adults also narrowed, while rates for young Latino, Native and Pacific Islanders remained disproportionately high.
“One of the things that I think is really important is [the study] shows the dynamic nature of the outbreak over time,” added Thorpe. “We really do need to pay attention to who’s becoming infected and where the infection is to get ahead of it.”
The findings hit close to home for Annelys Roque Gardner, an infectious-disease fellow at the University of California in San Francisco.
Gardner grew up in a working-class Latino household. At 15, she took a job as a cashier at a restaurant to help chip in toward household bills.
“That would have put me front and center” for contracting covid, said Gardner.
She has seen young women in San Francisco take on work as nannies, nurse assistants and medical assistants in hospitals and nursing homes, where they are especially vulnerable to contracting the virus. And while the elderly have been a priority for coronavirus vaccines because of higher risks of severe illness or death, Gardner stressed that being young doesn’t mean you’ll be okay if you get the virus.
“Being young doesn’t necessarily correlate with good health a lot of times,” she said.
Some young people may not have access to healthy food or regular checkups like their peers from middle-class, White households, Gardner explained. A Kaiser Family Foundation paper noted that Black and Latino children were more likely to have chronic conditions, such as obesity and asthma, which increase the severity of covid symptoms.
While this CDC study doesn’t detail health outcomes, a CDC report from September showed that the majority of children who have died of covid are Latino, Black or Native American.
The findings highlight the need for greater resources among vulnerable communities of color from early childhood, said Gardner.
Thorpe cautioned that the data the CDC analyzes doesn’t cover the entire country. The health agency relies on statistics recorded by each state, and there are great differences in the level of demographic detail the states report.
“We’re only looking at a slice of the United States, and we’re only looking at the cases where race and ethnicity was identified,” she said, noting that the South, which has a high proportion of the country’s Black population, was particularly underrepresented: only Arkansas, D.C., Florida and Kentucky were counted in the report. Data was also missing from highly populous states like California, New York and Texas.
Miriam Van Dyke, one of the study’s authors, says the report only pulled data from jurisdictions that met the CDC’s thresholds for adequate race/ethnicity reporting.
While Thorpe noted that data collection on race and ethnicity has improved over the course of the pandemic, a lack of consistency in reporting covid cases presents a “terrible” challenge in getting help to the people who need it the most.
Yoon, from the National Domestic Workers Alliance, said the findings underscore the importance of reaching long-marginalized communities as vaccination and relief efforts ramp up.
“The infection rate for the virus tracks the long-standing racial, economic and gender inequities in this country,” she said. “As we look ahead for better days and recovery, we really need to make sure that is an inclusive one, that it leaves no family, no young woman behind.”