Racial attitudes in a community affect COVID-19 numbers

Implicit racial attitudes within a community can effectively explain racial disparities seen in rates of COVID-19 in the United States, according to a new study published this week in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by George Cunningham and Lisa Wigfall of Texas A&M University, USA.

There is a growing body of evidence showing that racial and ethnic minorities are more affected by severe illness, and more likely to be hospitalized, from COVID-19 compared to white people. This disparity can be only partially explained by the disproportionate rates of underlying medical conditions, such as asthma, diabetes, and obesity, seen among Black/African American people.

In the new study, researchers collected data from a variety of publicly available sources for 817 counties (26% of all counties) in the United States. The data included information on cumulative COVID-19 deaths and cases from January 22 to August 31, 2020 as well as explicit and implicit racial attitudes—collected through Harvard University’s Project Implicit. The researchers also obtained a wide spectrum of demographic and economic information for these communities so that they could control for these factors.

The percent of Black residents in a county was positively associated with COVID-19 cases (r=0.47) and deaths (r=0.32) in the county. Moreover, both explicit and implicit racial attitudes were positively associated with COVID-19 (r=0.72). The results demonstrated that the relationship between race and COVID-19 cases was strongest when either explicit or implicit racial attitudes were highest. There was also an effect of implicit racial attitudes on COVID-19 deaths among the Black population. The authors conclude that implicit racial attitudes in a community can help explain racial disparities in COVID-19 rates.

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