New data suggest disparities in COVID-19 hospitalization by race/ethnicity; AHA updates its community data tool to better identify areas where severe cases are likely to occur

Photo of Christina Shay, PhD, FAHAChristina M. Shay, PhD, FAHA, Director, Impact and Health Metrics, American Heart Association

The American Heart Association Center for Health Metrics and Evaluation’s data visualization resource, “County-Level Characteristics Related to Increased Risk for Severe COVID-19 Complications,” has been updated to include detailed population estimates of the proportion of county residents according to race and ethnicity.

The Center updated this resource based on growing evidence about disparities in hospitalizations for COVID-19. On April 8, 2020 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published the first analyses from U.S. health officials which provided initial insight about COVID-19 hospitalization rates for people in the United States based on age, sex, race, ethnicity and preexisting health conditions. The major area of novel (yet preliminary) insight in the report was that significantly greater proportions of non-Hispanic black and Hispanic COVID-19 patients were hospitalized when compared with individuals of other races and ethnicities.

The CDC report also included findings consistent with earlier reports from local and international sources that identified older adults and individuals with specific chronic conditions—such as severe obesity, lung diseases, liver diseases, diabetes, and heart diseases—as populations at higher risk of hospitalization for COVID-19 illness.

Analyses such as this often examine individual COVID-related risk factors, but many communities experience clusters of health disparities that are driven by underlying socioeconomic inequalities. The impact of these co-occurrences of disparities and inequalities, when considered together, have exponential effects on community members’ health and ability to optimally access and use healthcare services.

Improving identification of communities at higher risk for severe COVID-19 outcomes

The updated CHME tool refines identification of communities with high rates of multiple factors related to severe COVID-19 illness, which puts them at high risk for increased acute healthcare utilization if an outbreak occurs. Once identified, these communities can implement efforts to increase public awareness of preventive measures (e.g., hand washing, physical distancing, increased sanitation) that can be highly effective at reducing outbreaks.

If outbreaks occur in communities with large proportions of the population at high risk for severe COVID-19 illness, vigilant surveillance and rapid resource response are essential to mitigate excess morbidity and mortality.

As new evidence is released about factors that put communities at highest risk, the CHME team will update this resource so it offers the most timely, relevant data to inform preemptive community preparedness measures.