Colorado life expectancy dropped sharply during pandemic, especially for people of color
So many Coloradians have died from COVID-19 and related causes, including drug overdoses, that life expectancy statistics have dropped dramatically last year.
The drop was most alarming among communities of color, where enough Hispanic and black residents died during the pandemic that life expectancy statistics for both groups fell by about four years. The drop among whites in Colorado was 1.4 years.
The state health department released the data Thursday afternoon, showing that Colorado’s overall life expectancy fell by two full years, from 80.9 years in 2019 to 78.9 years in 2020 .
Life expectancy is a statistical average of all people in a particular geographic area or demographic group. It is not a predictor for individuals. The life expectancy of people who have lived through the pandemic has not changed.
But state data reflects a new national study showing that life expectancy has fallen for Americans, falling 8.5 times more than the average for 16 high-income countries between 2018 and 2020. This study was co-founded. -written by researchers at CU Boulder, Virginia Commonwealth University and the Urban Institute, and published in the BMJ, the journal of the British Medical Association.
âThis is essential because we are losing years of the life of some vulnerable populations. This should never happen in our country, âsaid Dr Ozzie Grenardo, Head of Diversity and Inclusion at Centura Health.
Speculation around the national study was that COVID-19 exposed and exacerbated long-standing differences between access to health care for white Americans and access for people of color. On top of that, more black and Hispanic residents of the United States have worked in frontline jobs throughout the pandemic, exposing them more often to the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
âI thought it was incredibly sad,â said Dr. Tamaan Osbourne-Roberts, a family physician who serves a diverse population at an Iora primary care clinic in Denver.
He noted that the latest research underscores what he has learned and observed in his clinic, where many patients have skipped or delayed getting needed care.
âWe are certainly seeing the same challenges with chronic care that occurred before the pandemic was made worse by the pandemic. “
People of color have been hit hardest by the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic.
Colorado is now approaching 7,000 deaths from COVID-19. At the start of the pandemic, these deaths were disproportionately occurring among black and Hispanic residents.
Over time, official statistics have brought the percentage of deaths in both categories closer to the actual representation in the population. But nearly five percent of death cases are still listed as “unknown” ethnicity.
“I’m not surprised. I’m not at all surprised,” said Dr. Lilia Cervantes, associate professor in the Department of Medicine at Denver Health.
She noted that since the start of the pandemic, the United States has experienced a “disproportionate burden of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths in our Latin and black communities.” The same problems as the rest of the nation were especially prevalent in Colorado. “
Deidre Johnson, CEO and executive director of the Center for African-American Health in Denver, said pandemic conditions have created the perfect opportunity for the virus to exploit health inequalities that people have been talking about for years. .
âIt’s heartbreaking, but not surprising,â Johnson said. During the pandemic, it was easy to delay regular preventative care visits, dental care, and hospital visits as everyone tried to stay as safe as possible. Some providers and media have even recommended delaying care, she said.
âIt also became more difficult to access care if you needed it,â Johnson said. âCOVID-19 was a perfect storm of health inequity in a stressed healthcare system. “
Data released by the state shows life expectancy in Colorado has remained stable over the past decade and then dropped for all groups in 2020. For Hispanic residents, life expectancy has increased by 81.4 years to 77.3.
Black Coloradans saw their life expectancy drop almost at the same time, dropping from 78 years to 74.1 years.
The life expectancy of Asians / Pacific Islanders has increased from 88.8 years to 83.8 years and that of American Indian / Alaskan natives has increased from 83.4 to 80.5 years.
For white Coloradans, the decline fell from 81.5 years to 80.1 years.
“COVID has certainly played the most important role in this regard, as has the likely increase in causes such as drug overdoses,” said Kirk Bol, director of the state’s vital statistics program. . He noted that for the Asian / Pacific Islander and Native American / Alaska Native populations, with their relatively smaller populations and few deaths overall, “estimates of life expectancy are becoming less reliable.”
UC researcher Ryan Masters, one of the co-authors of the BJM study, said lack of equitable access to healthcare and other inequalities are key factors.
“It’s devastating or horrific – an absolute tragedy. A tragedy that we probably could have seen just because of the deep-rooted systemic factors,” he said.
Systemic inequalities – from who has access to health insurance to where a person lives and works – have contributed to the widening of the inequalities.
One indicator of these underlying disparities is the uninsured rate. In Colorado in 2019, 15.6% of Hispanic residents and 8.6% of black residents were uninsured, compared to 6.8% of white Coloradans. This is according to data compiled by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Cervantes highlighted the greater risk people of color face from COVID-19, which she described as “structural inequalities that increase exposure” to the coronavirus.
Many are employed as essential workers and live in multigenerational housing, so they are often unable to escape close contact with others, a considerable danger given the spread of the virus through aerosol transmission. And they face higher unemployment rates and less reliable access to quality health care, food and exercise.
Additionally, she said, marginalized groups who also have a “prevalence for cardio-metabolic conditions that increase the risk of worse outcomes” from COVID-19, things like obesity, diabetes and hypertension.
âThe length of your life depends on where you live in this country, your zip code, and it’s a measure of our health as a nation,â Cervantes said.
She highlighted the âsocial determinants of healthâ as key factors in life expectancy. These are the “environmental conditions in which people are born, live, learn, work, worship and age that affect a wide range of health and quality of life outcomes, such as life expectancy or length of life. of life “.
She said research has shown that these elements are responsible for an impact of around 70% over the span of our lifetimes, relative to social circumstances, environmental exposure, health care and behavioral patterns.
Cervantes grew up in the largely Latino neighborhoods of Valverde and Westwood in Denver, areas close to I-25 with few parks and grocery stores. Citing pre-pandemic data, she said “it’s morally distressing to think about the 6-year difference in life expectancy” between Valverde (78) and the predominantly white Washington Park neighborhood (84) itself. if they are less than 5 years old. miles away. ”
Cervantes believes these discrepancies have only worsened during the pandemic. âWe need to invest more as a nation in social services,â she said.
The new data is just the latest in a grim parade of misery caused by the pandemic and the underlying inequalities that have made it so devastating, especially in vulnerable communities.
Where are the additional deaths coming from and what must happen next to address the disparities in life expectancy.
In addition to deaths from COVID-19, Colorado has recorded hundreds of additional deaths, which appear to be at least at arm’s length from the pandemic as people self-medicate for anxiety and depression or have chosen to ‘Avoid healthcare and other human interactions for the sake of infection.
Causes such as drug overdoses, Alzheimer’s disease and liver disease, starvation and parasitic disease have all seen double-digit percentage increases in 2020. This is higher than the average number of deaths from these causes during the three years preceding the onset of the pandemic.
Health leaders and community advocates now say with this new data available, it will be up to Coloradans and Americans to address the glaring disparities that are reducing the lives of millions of Americans compared to their counterparts in other countries rich.
âWe are all interconnected. It’s all linked, âsaid Osbourne-Roberts. âThe health of one population in our country affects the health of all populations in our country. And that being the case, I hope people see this and really start to tackle all the health factors among all Americans. “
The first order of business is to improve immunization rates in communities of color, said Grenardo, a member of the state’s vaccine equity task force.
To date, in Colorado and the United States, COVID-19 vaccination rates in these communities are lower than in the white population.
âIt’s really another call to action for us to do something and make sure that we are vaccinating our populations most at risk of having infection problems,â Grenardo said. âIf we don’t do anything about it, these numbers will definitely continue to get worse. ”