Since the earliest days of the coronavirus pandemic, it's been widely believed that men are more likely to die ofthan women. Now, research is challenging the notion that the likelihood of dying of the disease largely comes down to biology, finding that coronavirus mortality rates for Black women in the U.S. are more than three times that of White and Asian men.
Black women in the U.S. are dying from the virus at a higher rate than any other group, male or female, except Black men, according to an analysis of COVID-19 mortality patterns by race and gender in Georgia and Michigan published this week in the Journal of Internal Medicine.
"The deaths we see in the pandemic reflect pre-existing structural inequities; after the pandemic is gone, those will still be there," Heather Shattuck-Heidorn, assistant professor of gender and women studies at the University of Maine and the study's senior author, told CBS MoneyWatch.
"Whatever is going on is probably not linked to the X chromosome or the Y chromosome," she added of the sex-determining DNA molecules.
While it's generally understood that social inequality and racism — not genetics — drive the racial disparities that have had White Americans dying of COVID-19 at lower rates than Black Americans, the differences in gender outcomes have been viewed as biological. That's led the medical field to consider giving the female hormone estrogen to older men, for instance, as an experimental treatment for COVID, said Shattuck-Heidorn.
If that gender-based premise were true, however, a similar sex disparity should be apparent across different locations — and it's not, the researchers say.
For instance, the rate of COVID-19 deaths among men in New York is 1.3 times higher than for women, and in Connecticut the rates were the same, found the researchers, who include Tamara Rushovich, a PhD candidate in population health sciences at Harvard University and Sarah Richardson, director of the GenderSci Lab at Harvard, among others.
Society, not biology
The findings of vastly different male-female mortality rates across racial groups in the U.S. indicates that "the sex-disparity in mortality among COVID patients is largely rooted in social factors," Shattuck-Heidorn and Rushovich wrote in summarizing their study.
Headlines "frame sex disparities in COVID-19 outcomes as a matter of essential biological differences between the sexes. Our findings support a contrary view, that biological factors at best play a small role. Rather, social factors influenced by structural gendered racism are key to the patterns of sex disparities revealed by the COVID-19 pandemic," Richardson and Rushovich wrote in an opinion piece published on Monday by the Boston Globe.
"Without looking at the intersections between gender and race, the blanket claim that women with COVID-19 fare better than men makes invisible the high death rate among Black women," they concluded.
The roles played by Black women in the workforce is likely one factor in their higher death rates. Essential workers are at higher risk of being infected with COVID-19. Front-line jobs, including nursing home assistants and home health aide, also are.
"If anything, the COVID-19 crisis has uncovered abysmal inequities in the population. Death rates have been shown to be strongly associated with economic inequality," according to Alexander Monge-Naranjo, a research officer and economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. In a blog post Tuesday, he cited research that found "other variables didn't really matter when pre-COVID income inequality was included."
The imbalance also holds when it comes to the race to immunize Americans against the virus. Separate research has found that not only are Black and Latinx Americans more likely to die from COVID-19, they're.