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New Alaska data reveals race a factor in likelihood of getting COVID-19, and in its severity

  • Author: Annie Berman
  • Updated: August 15
  • Published August 14
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Clear evidence that race-based disparities affecting who gets COVID-19 and who is hospitalized for it have recently emerged in Alaska’s coronavirus data, public health officials said this week.

“We have been seeing these disparities across the country,” said Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s top doctor, on a call Wednesday. “And we’re unfortunately starting to see it in Alaska’s data as well.”

Across the country since the beginning of the pandemic, the virus has not affected all Americans equally.

Federal data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month reveals that in particular, Black and Latino people in the U.S. are three times as likely to become infected by the virus and almost twice as likely to die from it compared to white Americans.

And nationwide, Alaska Natives and American Indians are dying at a higher rate than any race except Black Americans, according to a national data tracking project.

But until recently, Alaska’s small population and relatively few cases made it difficult to observe with certainty any virus trends by race in the state.

Data released in the state’s latest weekly summary shows that of virus cases where race is known, a quarter involve Alaska Natives, who make up just 16% of the population.

Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders are also disproportionately likely to become sickened by the virus in Alaska. This group makes up just 1% of the state’s population but a little over 7% of its total coronavirus cases where race is known. (According to the state’s most recent weekly summary, a race is known for 2,076 virus cases, while 1,507 are under investigation and 192 are unknown.)

“We’re starting to see in the Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander population more cases here recently, particularly in the Anchorage area,” Zink said.

Data shows this group is also more likely to be hospitalized than are people of other races: 17% of Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders who tested positive for COVID-19 in Alaska required hospitalization, which was far above the 4% overall average of all people who tested positive for the virus in Alaska who had to be hospitalized.

Alaska’s relatively low number of deaths — 26 — is not, however, a large enough sample size to draw any “robust conclusions” about connections between race or ethnicity, and higher likelihood of death from the virus, according to the state’s weekly report.

Additionally, the race or ethnicity category of about half of the Alaska’s total cases has not yet been identified in the state’s data. But state officials said Thursday that as case counts continue to fall, the data team will have more time to update these numbers, and a more complete picture of Alaska’s numbers will emerge.

On its website, the CDC cites “long-standing systemic health and social inequities” as a major contributing factor to why people from racial and ethnic minority groups are overall at an increased risk of getting sick and dying from COVID-19.

Discrimination, lack of health care access, and poverty are all “inequities in social determinants of health that put racial and ethnic minority groups at increased risk,” according to the CDC.

Underlying health conditions, which disproportionately affect some races — and also act as increased risk factors for severe illness from the coronavirus — can partly explain the state’s race-based disparities, Joe McLaughlin, the state’s epidemiologist, said Wednesday.

“It may also be a combination of where people work, where they live, what their work environment looks like, and also how they play live and celebrate together,” Zink said. “When we have big groups of families and lots of people getting together, we just know that while that is such an incredibly supportive, wonderful part of many cultures, it also just provides an opportunity for the virus to spread from one person to another.”

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