Most people who died of COVID in 2020 had something essential in common, study finds

Most working-age Americans who died of COVID-19 during the first year of the pandemic were so-called essential workers in labor, service and retail jobs that required on-site attendance and prolonged contact with others, according to a recently published study led by a University of South Florida epidemiologist.

The study looks back on COVID-19 deaths in 2020 and affirms what many had already known or suspected — that Americans who could not work from home and who labored in low-paying jobs with few or no benefits, such as paid sick leave and health insurance coverage, bore the brunt of deaths during the pandemic’s first year, said Jason Salemi, an associate professor in USF’s College of Public Health and co-author of the study.

Salemi said the finding, while perhaps expected, left him with two takeaways: That essential workers need more protections during an infectious disease pandemic, and that society’s desire to “return to normal” will mean different things for different people — with inequitable consequences.

“If I say I want things to return to normal, I’m in a position of advantage,” Salemi said. “I can work from home most days. I have access to a primary care physician, and paid sick leave. There are people in this study for whom that may not be the case.”

To conduct the study, Salemi and his colleagues analyzed nearly 70,000 death certificates for people ages 25 to 64 years old and who had died of COVID-19 in 2020, nearly all of which occurred before the first vaccine was authorized in December of that year.

But death certificates do not always include a decedent’s occupation, Salemi said. Instead, researchers used education attainment level, which is listed on all death certificates, as a proxy for an individual’s socioeconomic position. No education beyond high school was “low” while some college education was “intermediate” and anyone with at least a bachelor’s degree was “high.”

Researchers then used U.S. Census data on occupations held by adults in 2020 to calculate the possibility of remote work for the different groups, which were further divided by race, ethnicity, gender and age

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