FAU Study: COVID-19 Especially Harmful in at-Risk Communities

By paul owers | 10/5/2021

Florida communities struggling with health and social challenges before the COVID-19 pandemic bear disproportionate risk of infection and death, according to a new study from a researcher at Florida Atlantic University.

The study by College of Business associate professor Patrick Bernet, Ph.D., published in the Journal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities, analyzed the association of racial and ethnic composition, segregation and 2020 presidential election voting results with COVID-19 infections and deaths across Florida.

Florida counties with higher shares of Black residents had disproportionately higher COVID-19 infection and mortality rates, according to the research. The disparities are even more pronounced in counties with larger Republican vote shares, with the race effect increasing threefold and the statistical significance greatly magnified.

In fact, Bernet said the study model accuracy improved 25 percent after voting effects were added, showing the strength of association between politics and COVID-19 outcomes.

“Just as COVID-19 is more lethal in unhealthy individuals, it does greater damage in frail communities,” said Bernet, whose specialties include public health funding and effectiveness of public health programs. “When people feel less socially connected to their communities, and when there are no mandates requiring it, vaccination and mask-wearing are seen as less important. The resulting higher infection rates are then let loose in a community that was already in worse shape, resulting in higher mortality rates.”

In conducting the study, Bernet analyzed the Florida county COVID-19 infection and death counts reported through March 2021 and supplemented that data with socioeconomic characteristics and 2020 presidential results.

Bernet believes his study is one of the first of its kind. He said findings can help inform policy decisions that allocate resources where they will do the most good and customize messaging to improve protective measures, such as vaccination.

Earlier this year, Bernet conducted a separate study that found Florida ranked among the states with the highest COVID-19 infection rates for younger residents in 2020. The research also concluded that former U.S. President Donald Trumpʼs vote-share in Florida was associated with higher infection rates for all residents and higher over the age of 64 for emergency room, hospitalization and mortality rates.

“Where people care about the health of their own family, coworkers and neighbors, they use masks and get vaccinated to protect that community,” Bernet said. “Unfortunately, state policies have made it easier for some who choose to disregard the health of their own family, friends and community, resulting in excess infections, higher healthcare costs for everyone and more needless deaths.”