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Social Distancing Is A Privilege — And More Black And Latino Chicagoans Died Because They Couldn’t, Study Says

That translated into neighborhoods with more Black and Latino residents seeing more COVID-19 deaths in the spring, according to the study.

Folks line up for free COVID-19 tests at Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy in Chicago's Little Village neighborhood on Monday, November 30, 2020.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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CHICAGO — Being able to social distance is a privilege — and one that made the difference between life and death for some Chicagoans this spring, a new study highlights.

Chicago neighborhoods that had barriers to social distancing — like ones where more people lived in crowded housing or had fewer people who could work from home — saw more COVID-19 deaths during the spring, according to the study, which was published Thursday and performed by researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

That translated into more COVID-19 deaths in neighborhoods with more Black and Latino residents, while there were fewer deaths in neighborhoods with more white and Asian residents, according to the study.

Racial and Ethnic composition of Chicago Credit: UIC

Neighborhoods that saw more deaths were also more likely to have fewer households with internet, a higher proportion of SNAP recipients and lower educational attainment among residents, according to study.

“Barriers to social distancing really jumped out as a major driver of mortality, likely through increased risk of infection,” Molly Scannell Bryan, a research assistant professor and one of the paper’s authors, said in a news release.

“Neighborhoods where residents do not have internet at home means residents are more likely to need to leave the house more often and come into contact with more people outside the home. In the spring, when there were such high levels of community spread, this would have put those people at higher risk.”

Neighborhoods where fewer people have health insurance also saw more deaths.

Figure 1. COVID-19 death rates among non-institutionalized population per thousand residents. For non-institutionalized population, rate of COVID-19 deaths per 1000 population (A), and subset of deaths in the Black population (B), white population (C), and Hispanic/Latino population (D). Census-tracts with missing rates are census-tracts with no population (for A), or census-tracts with no population of the given race (for B-D).

Black and Latino residents had a higher death rate than other Chicagoans, according to the study, but that largely remained consistent regardless of neighborhood.

Contrasting that, white residents were more likely to die from the virus if they lived in neighborhoods with a lower educational attainment and a higher percentage of Latino residents, according to the study. The death rate for white Chicagoans fell when they lived in neighborhoods with more white or Asian residents.

“For each additional percentage point of the population that was Black, there was a 32 percent increase in the COVID-19 death rate, and for each additional percentage point of the population that was Hispanic/Latino, there was an 19 percent increase in the COVID-19 death rate,” according to the study. “Conversely, neighborhoods with a higher percentage of Asian or white residents saw lower death rates.”

The study’s findings back up what city officials have said for months: Black and Latino Chicagoans have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, seeing higher numbers of new cases and deaths.

The study focused on the spring, but, to date, Chicago has had 3,504 confirmed coronavirus deaths, about 40 percent of them among Black residents and 33 percent among Latino residents, according to city data. Just 20.7 percent of the deaths have been among white residents.

The city ZIP codes that have been hit the hardest are ones that are home to more essential workers who weren’t able to stay home during the pandemic — people like grocery store workers and factory employees, Dr. Allison Arwady, head of the Chicago Department of Public Health, has previously said.

People in hard-hit ZIP codes are also more likely to have children and elderly people who live at home with them and to be in multi-generational housing, Arwady said.

Those are the same social distancing barriers identified in the study that led to a higher risk of infection and death.

City leaders have said Chicagoans of color were — and are — at more at risk of infection and death due to longstanding structural racism.

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