COVID-19 death rates higher for ‘critical’ occupations, new study shows

Three years since the onset of the COVID-19 global pandemic, new research is offering insight into which workers were most affected by infections.

Previous studies have revealed disparities in COVID-19-related deaths among population demographics, including age, race and pre-existing medical conditions, but a new study by the University of Minnesota School of Public Health (SPH) has determined another factor – a person’s profession.

Published in the American Journal of Public Health, researchers examined the "occupational risk" associated with COVID-19 among those working in industries that were deemed essential during the pandemic.

In Minnesota, "critical workers" included those employed in health care, emergency response, child care/K–12 schools, food processing/agriculture, food service, transportation/logistics, public transit, airport and postal service, manufacturing, construction, and retail.

"This research advances our understanding of the ways the pandemic accentuated existing disparities, and suggests vaccine eligibility for some vulnerable groups was insufficiently prioritized in Minnesota," said Harshada Karnik, SPH researcher and lead author on the study in a statement.

According to a press release regarding the study, researchers examined death certificates and occupational employment rates in Minnesota between 2017 and 2021, then estimated the Excess Mortality Rate (EMR) – defined as deaths beyond those expected during usual circumstances – for those in critical occupations in 2020 and 2021.

The study found that the EMR during the onset of the pandemic was higher for workers in critical occupations than for other workers, detailing a mortality rate of 9.6 people infected per 10,000, compared to 1.9 per 10,000 for workers outside critical occupations.

The study also found that in nearly all occupations workers of color experienced a higher EMR than white workers, particularly in food processing, food service, construction, retail, and transportation and logistics. Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) workers experienced a higher EMR (4.6 in 2020 and 5.6 in 2021 per 10,000) than white workers (2.7 in 2020 and 4.4 in 2021).

In November 2020, Minnesota reached an all-time high of 101 deaths during a 24-hour time period, with the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) reporting 5,704 new cases of COVID-19 out of 55,853 completed tests — a positivity rate of 10.2%.

The study also looked at Minnesota’s vaccine eligibility and found the state's rollout insufficiently prioritized vulnerable groups of workers.

People working in food service, retail, and food processing, were included in later vaccine phases and experienced higher EMR than workers included in earlier phases, according to the study.

Inherently a moving target since the onset, previous state-provided predictions of total COVID-19 deaths varied widely throughout the pandemic.