Study shows that Arkansas minorities experienced abnormally high rates of COVID-19 infection
LITTLE ROCK — Researchers from multiple Arkansas agencies conducted an eight-month study which revealed that the state’s Black and Hispanic populations had higher COVID-19 infection rates than whites.
This project, which Open Forum Infectious Disease published, used seroprevalence of antibodies to COVID-19 as an indicator. Antibodies are created by a person’s immune system once they contract a virus or receive a vaccine to help fight a specific illness.
Joshua Kennedy, M.D., associate professor for the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) College of Medicine who treats patients at Arkansas Children’s Hospital, was the lead author of the report. Arkansas’ minorities getting the virus at such a large rate is problematic, he said.
“The higher exposure levels in minorities is not surprising,” he said. “However, the magnitude of the difference in exposure rates is what was surprising, especially early in the pandemic.”
The number of Arkansans, regardless of ethnicity, exposed to COVID-19 increased from 2.6% to 7.4% from August 2020 to December of that same year. Researchers studied nearly 6,000 serum samples from Arkansas adult outpatients who had medical appointments for reasons not related to COVID-19. The study focused on three specific time periods during the aforementioned August to December span. Throughout the study, Black and Hispanics were more likely than whites to have antibodies to COVID-19.
According to the United States Census Bureau, Arkansas has a population of just over 3 million people. The 2021 census numbers show that whites are 79% of the state’s population. Blacks are 15.7% and Hispanics 7.8% of Arkansas’ population.
There was no difference in the COVID-19 infection rates for minorities who reside in its two population hubs — located in the Central and Northwest regions of the state — compared to the rural areas.
Studies are ongoing as for the reasons why Blacks and Hispanics in Arkansas have higher COVID-19 infection rates than whites. At this juncture, researchers only have theories for the development.
Structural racism, inadequate food options, being from low-income households, holding jobs that didn’t provide the option of working from home, having limited access to a primary care physician, and limited access to adequate health care coverage are a few of the health-related roadblocks in many minority populations. Ultimately, these issues can cause delays in care and in communication concerning implementation of public health practices, leaving these patients vulnerable to pandemic infections.
Additionally, Arkansans 18-29 and 30-39 had the highest infection rates in terms of age. The information also showed that minorities comprised the highest percentage of the cases.
“We suspect that the higher level of seroprevalence of antibodies in these populations is secondary to exposure risk,” Kennedy said. “While we can’t say for sure, we think that these groups were the ones that had to continue working during the pandemic, therefore, their risk for exposure was higher.”
The study’s researchers noted how their info highlights the need to learn why Arkansas’ minority populations are exposed to COVID-19 far more often than whites. Finding out the concrete reasons why this has occurred would help health officials address the issue.
“While we are moving into a period where we’re seeing a decrease of infections, it is important to remember that COVID-19 is not gone,” Kennedy said. “We must remain vigilant and follow CDC instructions for masking and limiting our contacts. We should always remember to properly wash our hands.”
The UAMS Transitional Research Institute provided some of the funding for this project. The institute provided support for clinical sample collection, sample processing, site coordination and communications, and overall implementation of this project, including provision of an honest broker, secure data storage and data management through the REDCap survey.
The researchers got UAMS Institutional Review Board approval to obtain these samples and evaluate seroprevalence within Arkansas’ population.