January 29, 2021 | Erin Bluvas, firstname.lastname@example.org
Just a few months into his Health Policy Research Scholar Program with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Ph.D. in Epidemiology student Gabriel Benavidez is collaborating with three other members from his cohort to lead a Health Policy Research Scholars COVID and Anti-Racism Pilot Project with support from a $35K grant from the program. Working with Leah Estrada (Columbia University), Jessica Levasseur (Duke University) and Alexandra Maxim (Georgia Institute of Technology) Benavidez will assess the impacts of healthcare infrastructure accessibility and environmental pollutants on COVID-19 incidence and mortality in the United States.
“The United States leads the world in COVID-19 incidence and mortality, with racial and ethnic minorities experiencing a disproportionate share of this,” Benavidez says. “COVID-19 disparities are likely explained by sociodemographic, healthcare infrastructure, and environmental factors that systematically place racial and ethnic minorities at increased risk of COVID-19 incidence and death.”
Previous research has already established that minorities are more likely to live in communities designated as medically underserved and health provider shortage areas. The resulting/associated poor healthcare infrastructure (e.g., lack of necessary medical care, facilities, equipment, transportation) – creates barriers to accessing essential services, particularly among racial/ethnic and under-resourced communities (e.g., rural). These challenges are compounded by racial/ethnic minorities’ exposure to additional unfavorable environments, such as poor air quality, contaminated drinking water and environmentally toxic substances – exposures that emerging research is already beginning to link to adverse COVID-19 incidence, outcomes and mortality.
“Although the relationships between health outcome disparities, sociodemographic, healthcare infrastructure, and environmental factors have been examined separately, little is known how these factors together have impacted the substantial COVID-19 disparities among racial and ethnic minorities,” Benavidez says.
With this study, the team will explore sociodemographic factors, healthcare infrastructure factors, exposure to environmental toxic substances and overall COVID-19 burden in U.S. counties. They will apply epidemiological and geospatial methods on multiple datasets to identify any patterns or associations in these areas. Based on their findings, the researchers will construct a publicly available online map with a Graphical User Interface for educational and policy purposes.
“The first step in building a Culture of Health is to identify the disparities and inequities in health and improve them,” Benavidez says. “We expect results from this work to generate new knowledge that can guide policy change by identifying areas with the greatest need for targeted COVID-19 mitigation efforts and areas susceptible to future public health emergencies.”
This work was supported by the Health Policy Research Scholars, a program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.