New study highlights COVID-19's disproportionate impact on vulnerable communities

A woman rides a bus while wearing a face mask
New data from Aetna Foundation and U.S. News examine the intersection of COVID-19 and social determinants. (alvarez/Getty)

The healthiest communities in the country are also among those with the lowest rates of COVID-19 infections—further highlighting the direct link between social determinants of health and the pandemic, a new study from U.S. News & World Report and Aetna Foundation shows. 

The two organizations released their annual ranking of the healthiest communities in the U.S. alongside an analysis of the impact of the novel coronavirus on these regions. They found that the 500 healthiest communities ranked in the list had a COVID-19 case rate that’s 40% lower than other counties. 

The healthiest communities averaged 889 cases per 100,000 people, compared to an average of 1,493 cases per 100,000 people elsewhere, according to the report. 

The community ranked as the country’s healthiest—Los Alamos, New Mexico—had one of the 100 lowest COVID-19 case rates in the country at 124 cases per 100,000. 

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Garth Graham, M.D., vice president and chief community health officer at CVS Health, told Fierce Healthcare that Los Alamos invested heavily in drinking water quality and affordable housing, and that addressing those social determinants of health has clearly paid off in other ways. 

“I think one of the major findings here is just how intertwined health equity is in terms of health outcomes and how much of a role social determinants of health plays in driving that,” Graham said. 

The virus is having a particularly disproportionate impact on communities of color, the analysis found. Counties that reported an above-average proportion of Black residents, or 13% or more, had a COVID-19 infection rate 1.4 times higher than the national average and a mortality rate that is 1.2 times higher. 

Among the 25 communities that have the highest COVID-19 mortality rates, 20 have a population that is above-average in the number of Black residents, and eight are communities with a majority of Black residents, according to the report. 

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In communities with above-average proportions of Hispanic residents, or about 18% or more, COVID-19 case rates are 14% higher, according to the report. Communities that are majority Hispanic had a case rate 1.4 times the national average and a higher mortality rate from COVID-19 than the national average. 

The health disparities impacting people of color are not new, but a year under the pandemic that included prominent, ongoing discussions on racial justice are putting a massive spotlight on these challenges, Graham said. 

“I think the opportunity is there more than it has ever been before in history,” he said. “This year has been the biggest spotlight we’ve had on these combined efforts around health.”