Pandemic widened existing heath disparities across the US

In 2020, life expectancy in the U.S. dropped a year and a half, according to the CDC. But not every American’s life was equally cut short.

The death data shows a trend that started before the pandemic: low income and minority communities living disproportionally shorter lives across the U.S. and here in metro Atlanta. In 2020, Black men had a higher percentage of excess deaths, including COVID-19 deaths, than white men, Channel 2 Action News learned from researchers.

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Mom Latosha Nettles told Channel 2′s Sophia Choi she was saddened her child is now a part of that trend. She said her 17-year-old gentle giant Tyler Fairley started feeling sick last August. A PCR test confirmed the unvaccinated Douglassville teen was COVID-19 positive.

When chicken soup didn’t work, Nettles took Tyler to a local ER. He was discharged twice before Nettles took him to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. She said he was admitted to CHOA on Wednesday and was dead by Sunday. “We still can’t understand why,” Nettles said.

Two years into the pandemic, we’re learning more about COVID-19′s human toll. So many people died in 2020 that the U.S.’ life expectancy dropped more than at any other time after World War II. That’s more than any other wealthy country, except Russia.

“During COVID, one thing we’re interested in is what is excess mortality. So how high much higher are deaths during the COVID era than you would expect to see given historical trends?” asked Bill Evans, co-founder of the Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities at the University of Notre Dame. He learned the pandemic didn’t equally lead to premature deaths. “COVID is really much higher mortality rates in African American populations,” Evans said. “But it’s also the case that a lot of these non-COVID causes of excess mortality are substantially higher in minority populations as well, especially Black men.”

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Evans’ research reveals Black, non-Hispanic men are only about 7% of the U.S. population, but accounted for nearly 9% of COVID-19 deaths. And when Evans looked at excess deaths — things like drug overdoses and murders that were historically higher during the pandemic — Black men accounted for 28% of those deaths.

While more research must be done to understand why deaths from murders and drug overdoses rose during 2020, especially for Black men, Evans said the pandemic impacted mental health.

“COVID pushes you over. Some people were standing on a mattress, other people were standing on the edge of a cliff,” Evans said.

The pandemic magnified preventable differences in the burden of disease, including income, housing, and stress, that can impact your health and shorten your life. Even before the pandemic, Channel 2 reported that residents of Buckhead’s affluent Paces neighborhood had a lifespan of 87 years, while people in downtown’s historically low-income Mechanicsville have a lifespan of 65 years, according to NYU Langone’s City Health Dashboard.

“Those disparities that we’re seeing in COVID are the same disparities that we see across chronic diseases and other causes of premature life expectancy,” explained Harry Heiman with Georgia State University’s School of Public Health. Heiman said mortality data proves addressing health disparities and investing in public health to prevent disease and stress is an important part of saving lives. “I think what that means is that we need to support communities around conditions around housing, and transportation in their jobs.”

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Support from family and therapists is how Latosha Nettles is healing after losing her son.

“No Tyler for Thanksgiving. No Tyler for Christmas,” Nettles said. “Then here we are in January and his birthday, where he would have been 18 years old.”

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