How the demographics of COVID-19 deaths have changed since vaccines became available: NPR

NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro speaks with Samantha Artiga of the Kaiser Family Foundation about racial disparities in COVID-19 deaths.


We have repeatedly heard from officials that this is now a pandemic of unvaccinated people. Most people who die and get sick have not been vaccinated against COVID-19. So does this mean that the demographic composition of those affected by this pandemic has changed? To answer this question, we are now joined by Samantha Artiga. She is Vice President and Program Director of Racial Equity and Health Policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Welcome to the program.

SAMANTHA ARTIGA: Thank you very much for inviting me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: At the beginning of this pandemic, it was mostly black people and Latinos who were affected. They were the front line workers – weren’t they? – those who were in low-income communities with systemic problems, with access to health care. And they may have had underlying conditions. Has this changed since the vaccine?

ARTIGA: So what we see when we look at the cumulative data since the start of the pandemic is that we continue to see disparities in terms of higher rates of infection, illness and death among people from color. And above all, when age differences are taken into account, these gaps are even greater. But when we look at trends in the data over time, we find that the disparities in illness and death, especially for blacks and Hispanics, have narrowed over time. And so those gaps are not as large as they were in the early stages of the pandemic.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So I guess the difference is that the vaccine is online. What do you think explains this narrowing of racial disparities?

ARTIGA: So I think a key factor is certainly the deployment of vaccination. Vaccinations provided increased protections across racial and ethnic groups, and we saw that while Hispanics and Blacks were less likely to have been vaccinated during the early parts of the vaccination rollout, these disparities in vaccinations are also shrinking now. I think at the same time, there are a series of other factors that may influence these trends, including an increased spread of the virus among the white population due to various factors.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We’ve seen a lot of stories, haven’t we? — about its impact on predominantly white communities in the Midwest and South, for example, where people might not want to get vaccinated for a variety of reasons, but some of them might be political. How big is this disparity now between white people and people of color in terms of impacts?

ARTIGA: So when we look at the very latest data on case rates and death rates, there’s little difference in rates per 100,000 among whites, blacks, and Hispanics. Again, this does not control age. When we control for age, we generally see larger disparities because people of color tend to be a younger demographic. If we look at how the pandemic has evolved over time, initially much of the push happened in urban areas, which are more racially diverse. We now see since the end of 2020 that much of the virus is occurring in more rural areas. At the same time, we know that vaccination rates are lower in rural areas and that rural areas are home to a higher proportion of white residents. So, this geographic shift over time in the spread of the virus may lead to increased spread among the white population.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How do you think these trends will change, if at all, when children under 12 start getting vaccinated?

ARTIGA: Well, we know that children under 12 are a particularly racially diverse population. I think expanding vaccine eligibility to children under 12 will also continue to narrow some of the gaps we still see in vaccination rates because they include a greater proportion of children of color. So really, this expansion only reinforces the continued focus on equity as we continue to work to increase immunization rates and recover from the pandemic.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Last question – obviously this country has been brutalized by the delta variant – 2,000 deaths a day, although those numbers are going down. As someone looking at this data for a living, what do you think we’ll see in the future?

ARTIGA: I think it’s important to recognize that while the demographic patterns of those most affected by the pandemic right now are changing, the underlying structural inequalities that have exposed people of color and low-income populations income at increased risk at the start of the pandemic have not changed. And so, they still remain at heightened risk as the pandemic continues to evolve and potential future health threats may emerge.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is Samantha Artiga from the Kaiser Family Foundation. Thank you very much.

ARTIGA: Thank you very much.


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