Data suggests that frontline and essential workers have a higher risk of contracting the novel coronavirus and dying from Covid-19 than others, but which professions among those workers face the highest risk?
A new, preprint study published in medRxiv sheds some light—and the answer might be surprising.
For the study, researchers at the University of California-San Francisco looked at data from death records, including occupational data, on people ages 18 to 65 who died in California spanning from 2016 through October 2020. The researchers used that data—along with information from death records on people ages 18 to 65, who died from Covid-19 in California between March 2020 through October 2020—to determine excess mortality among California residents ages 18 to 65 by occupational sector and occupation, as well as by race. The researchers calculated death-risk ratios comparing mortality risk during the Covid-19 epidemic with mortality risk before the epidemic by comparing 2020 deaths with the arithmetic mean of 2018 and 2019 deaths.
In total, the researchers estimated there were 10,047 excess deaths in California among people ages 18 to 65 from March 2020 through October 2020. According to the researchers, individuals working in the food or agriculture sector were at the highest risk of death from Covid-19 during that time period, followed by individuals working in transportation or logistics and those working in the facilities sector.
When broken down by occupation, the researchers found that cooks had the highest risk of death from Covid-19 from March 2020 through October 2020, followed by packaging and filling machine operators and tenders and agricultural workers.
The researchers also found that people of color working in some sectors, especially Black and Latino people, had a much higher risk of death than white people working in those same sectors. For example, while white people working in the food or agriculture sector saw a 16% increased risk of death during March 2020 through October 2020 when compared with pre-pandemic times, Black people in the same sector had a 34% increased risk of death and Latino people had a 59% increased risk of death.
Similarly, the researchers found that the risk of death among Asian people working in the health or emergency sector was 40% higher from March 2020 through October 2020 when compared with pre-pandemic times, while the risk of death was up by 32% among Latinos working in that sector, 27% among Blacks working in that sector, and 2% among whites working in that sector.
The study authors noted that previous research had shown essential workers, and especially health care workers, were at increased risk of contracting the novel coronavirus and developing Covid-19. However, the researchers wrote that although their study is "in agreement with prior studies in finding pandemic-related risks among health care workers … it suggests that the risks are even higher in other sectors, such as food/agriculture and transportation/logistics."
The researchers also noted that their findings further highlight racial and other disparities when it comes to Covid-19 risk. "In California, per-capita excess mortality is relatively high among Blacks, Latinos, and individuals with low educational attainment," the researchers wrote. "These populations face unique occupational risks because they may disproportionately make up the state's essential workforce and because essential workers often cannot work from home."
Overall, the researchers said their findings could help to inform where policies are most needed to protect essential workers and efforts to prioritize Covid-19 vaccination efforts. "Vaccine distribution prioritizing in-person essential workers will be important for reducing excess [Covid-19] mortality," they wrote (Wilson, The Hill, 2/2; Chen et. al., medRxiv, 1/21).
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