Our View: Challenging assumptions

Our View: Challenging assumptions
Chart/Jessica Kim

An old journalism adage says when you assume, you “make an ass of u and me.” Assumptions are relatives of stereotypes, which are first cousins of bigotry.

One of the most common assumptions currently in vogue is to lump “communities of color” together – as if Blacks and Latinos in particular are the same – while making sweeping claims about all aspects of American life. And yet, our page one story in this week’s Times, “COVID-19 data trends surprise” shows that, in this particular case, this assumption is demonstrably false.

In analyzing cases and deaths from COVID-19 using data from the Virginia Department of Health website, it’s clear that in both the City of Alexandria and Virginia as a whole, it’s Blacks and whites who have demonstrated similar patterns toward COVID-19 vaccinations and who have similar mortality rates per case.

Meanwhile, it’s Latinos who have availed themselves of healthcare in the form of vaccines that have been made readily available to them in this city and elsewhere in Virginia, and who have vastly better outcomes per COVID-19 case than either Blacks or whites.

Statewide, whites have the worst mortality rate per COVID-19 case of the three ethnic groups, despite a slightly higher vaccination rate throughout Virginia than Blacks.
The medical experts that we consulted for this story talked in general terms about various factors, from co-morbidities to utilizing preventative care to trust to age differences between the groups. We also have several takeaways from analyzing this data.

• There appears to be a lack of trust in the medical system on the part of both Blacks and whites that led to lower vaccination rates, though the primary reason why for each group is likely different. Many Blacks are still wary after being immorally used as guinea pigs for government medical experiments in the 1930s and 40s. Among whites, distrust of government mandates is strong in a sizable minority, both in Alexandria and statewide, and refusal to get the COVID-19 vaccine is manifestation of this distrust.

• We think access to healthcare played a key role, both in vaccination rates and with treatment. Because Latinos live more in urban areas of Virginia, such as Alexandria, efforts like those of Neighborhood Health and the Alexandria Health Department to set up walk-up vaccination clinics – where residence and legal status were not checked – were extraordinarily successful. Conversely, whites in rural areas of Virginia lack access to the same quantity and quality of healthcare as that available to residents of urban areas, regardless of their ethnicity.

• We think the younger average age of Latinos in Alexandria and Virginia played a significant role in their better outcomes per COVID-19 case. The data clearly shows that people over age 50, and particularly over age 70, fare much worse with COVID-19. And yet, this is not the entire explanation for better overall Latino health outcomes. When we examined nationwide maternal mortality rates, we found that Latino outcomes were better than those of whites and Blacks in each age group.

• We think the vaccination rate data for Latinos is likely overstated, particularly Alexandria’s 95% rate. This is likely because of undocumented residents who are also not counted in the city’s overall Latino population. For example, if 100 residents who aren’t counted in the overall number of residents get vaccinated and are counted in the vaccination tally, the overall vaccination rate goes up. In addition, we think Alexandria’s wonderful open clinics were likely utilized by residents of other jurisdictions.

Additionally, while these phenomena would artificially inflate the Latino vaccination rate, it means the mortality rate for Latinos is likely even better than our calculations show. This is because an ethnicity was identified for all but about 1.5% of Alexandria deaths from COVID-19, whereas about 10% of city cases – and 15% statewide – did not have an ethnic designation. Whatever proportion of these cases were Latino would have lowered the mortality rate.

• Finally, the data shows once again, clearly, even if only in a strong correlation, that vaccines work in preventing death from COVID-19. For anyone reading who is not yet vaccinated, it’s still not too late. The COVID-19 vaccine is safe, effective and in most instances free.

Data is endlessly fascinating. Assumptions, meanwhile, should be viewed warily. Their only real use is to make predictions that can be tested through scientific method, and then discarded if proven wrong.