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OU researchers study relationships between COVID-19, race

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Housing Covid Testing Sign

A sign is displayed outside of Cate 3 listing information for OU Housing resident testing on Sept. 3.

Recent studies by OU researchers have found notable disparities between health in white populations versus health in minority populations, particularly amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

In COVID-19 Related Racial and Ethinic Disparities In Oklahoma, a research article examining how COVID-19 has affected different populations in Oklahoma, researchers Dr. Janitzio Guzmán, Amy D. Hendrix, Elise Knowlton and Dr. Kimberly Martin found that a majority of COVID-19 cases came from minority populations.

“As a member of the Cherokee Nation, studying these types of disparities is something near and dear to my heart,” Hendrix said in an email to The Daily. “I think each of us on the team saw the need for data to be looked at in Oklahoma.” 

The study showed the greatest percentage change in cases of COVID-19 was found among non-Hispanic or Latino individuals. 

“Unfortunately, I wasn’t surprised by the results as they are fairly consistent with reports throughout the country and the UK during the first half of the pandemic,” Hendrix said. “We knew we’d find disparities, but I had not anticipated the disparities to be so apparent in those populations.” 

Martin also said she wasn’t surprised by the results of the study. 

“We were seeing more cases of COVID-19 in minority populations (anyway),” Martin said in an email. “When we looked at the data, it mirrored our own clinical experience and what other healthcare providers were reporting.” 

Martin said the reasons for the disparities between white and minority populations health is not certain, but there are several possible factors. 

“There is no single risk factor that puts these minority communities more at risk,” Martin said. “It is likely multifactorial, including lack of insurance coverage, multi-generational housing and the higher percentage of minority workers who are employed in service and or production jobs.” 

Hendrix said she believes future research should focus more on why these disparities exist. 

While COVID-19 appears to affect minority populations more, it is not the only negative health disparity minority populations face compared to white populations. According to a study by Nasim Ferdows, assistant professor in the OU Department of Health Administration and Policy and various co-authors, Black adults in rural areas have been found to face a higher death rate and more health problems than white adults. 

Ferdows said in an email that data for this study was collected from national mortality data from 3,131 U.S. counties between 1968 and 2016. Ferdows said she and her fellow researchers were surprised to find the health disparities on this national level.

“Because many current studies indicate a closing racial gap in US mortality rates for almost all age-groups, we did not expect to see high and increasing racial disparities in rural areas,” Ferdows said. 

One of the main reasons for the disparities, Ferdows said, was the difficulty of rural areas faced with access to healthcare. 

“A long-lasting shortage of physicians in rural areas and closures of a disproportionate number of rural hospitals and nursing homes in the past 10 years have made health care both more expensive and geographically distant for many,” Ferdows said.

Ferdows also said she and other researchers are working on a new project studying COVID-19 infection and mortality rates in rural and urban areas to investigate how the trends have changed overtime in different geographic areas for different racial and ethnic groups as the COVID-19 virus spreads. 

“We are at a very early stage of this research and do not have any specific findings to share,” Ferdows said. “But we expect to see higher mortality rates in more remote areas … and older minorities in rural areas being highly affected because research suggests minorities in the higher risk groups in terms of having complications for COVID-19, due to their higher prevalence of cardiovascular risk factors — which itself is the product of structural racism.” 

Ferdows said structural racism is another reason minorities may have disparities in health. 

“The lack of access to healthcare services in rural areas … along with structural racism, poverty, and inequality might be the reasons behind higher racial disparities in rural areas,” Ferdows said. “One of the most important issues in the United States is the structural racism, which has become more prominent recently. (Our) research addresses this important issue by simply showing how things evolve over time for different races living in different settings.”  

According to Becker's Hospital Review, Oklahoma is third in the nation for rural hospital closures, with eight shutdowns in the last 10 years.

Even though their study focused more on urban areas, Martin and Hendrix both agreed that Oklahoma faces similar issues in the rural areas of Oklahoma. 

According to Hendrix, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has recently published maps ranking countries according to health factors and outcomes.

“These maps really highlight the struggles that our rural communities are facing in regards to health,” Hendrix said.

Martin also said she assumes minority populations throughout both urban and rural areas are being more disproportionately affected by COVID-19. 

Whether across the nation or at OU, all three researchers agree there are things communities can do to decrease these disparities in minority health. 

“The first, and perhaps most important, (thing to do) is to stay well-informed.” Hendrix said. “By well-informed, I mean rely on evidence based and science driven advice. ... To be well-informed, use the skills you learn in Composition I – check your sources, look for primary sources, and realize that this is a rapidly evolving situation, which means everything we know is subject to change.” 

Ferdows said the most influential way to influence change in health is to have communities “take action by providing educational community programs to enhance healthy lifestyles.”

Finally, Martin said the easiest way to make a change in a community in regards to health disparities is to wear a mask. 

“Every single individual needs to protect themselves and others by taking this pandemic seriously,” Martin said. “Only through public health measures of wearing a mask, washing your hands and staying 6 feet apart are we going to make a difference. With the holidays coming up, this is even more critical as large family gatherings will contribute to spread.” 

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