Study: Residents of poorer neighborhoods got COVID at 10 times the rate of those in affluent neighborhoods

One-quarter of Utah’s population are racial minorities, who have accounted for about one-third of the state’s COVID cases.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The University of Utah places signs around campus to encourage people to wear masks on Wednesday, July 8, 2020, as coronavirus cases continue to rise in the state of Utah.

Residents of Salt Lake County’s least-affluent ZIP codes contracted the coronavirus nearly 10 times more often, per capita, than residents of the most affluent areas, according to U. researchers Daniel Mendoza and Tabitha Benney.

“We were shocked at the nearly tenfold difference in contagion rate increase when comparing the groups we had defined,” Mendoza said.

“I think it was a very sobering moment when we realized how deep the disparities truly were in our own backyard,” added Benney.

About one-quarter of Utah’s population are racial minorities, who have accounted for about one-third of the state’s COVID cases.

“The first time our team crunched the numbers,” Benney said, “we were all dismayed to see how well income and occupation related to COVID incidence rates.”

Benney, an associate professor of political science, and Mendoza, a research assistant professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences, discovered that during the 2020 lockdowns, more residents in affluent neighborhoods in Salt Lake County were able to stay at home than residents of the least affluent ZIP codes. And that, they argue in a study published in the journal COVID, suggests that the “essential worker” jobs held by residents of the least-affluent areas — which also have the highest percentage of minority residents — put them at greater risk for contracting COVID-19.

They used data from traffic sensors and data on COVID-19 rates combined with demographic, occupational and income numbers. And what they discovered, according to Mendoza, is that Salt Lake County exhibits “strongly marked socioeconomic disparities” based on “substantial differences in race, income and occupation.”

The economic divide “roughly follows” Interstate 15, with higher per capita income and more white collar workers on the east side and lower per capita income and more blue collar workers on the west side. There are more racial minorities in the northwest part of the county than in the southwest part.

Mendoza and Benney pointed to “structural inequalities” in Salt Lake County. In the first few months of the pandemic, white collar workers worked from home while “essential” workers “still journeyed out to keep hospitals running, grocery store shelves stocked and packages moving around the country,” according to the study.

“The true front-line workers were far more varied than expected,” Benney said. “Medical workers are the heroes for sure, but janitors, repair people and folks that kept our homes and our families healthy throughout the pandemic were, and may again, be facing greater risks due to their starting point in life and the occupation they have today.”

The traffic data showed that between February-June 2020, traffic in high-income ZIP codes decreased by up to 50%, and by about 15% in low-income ZIP codes. And, according to Mendoza and Benney, there’s a statistical correlation between traffic patterns and income, occupation and COVID-19 rates.

“Income and occupation go hand in hand much more so than race and either of the variables,” Mendoza said.

Lockdowns, Benney said, need to be designed better. “Because more affluent communities were more likely to stay home [it] appears to have shifted the disease risk away from the wealthiest, most white, and white-collar workers, who were already more likely to rebound from a crisis,” she said.

Benney acknowledged that Utahns benefitted overall because of the lockdowns, but added that designing policies with low income workers in mind may help prevent the spread of disease and improve outcomes for vulnerable populations — as well as society overall.

“Frankly, we should be showing our support for these people by masking up in public, getting vaccinated, and looking out for our community in any way we can,” Benney said.

“Our hope,” Mendoza added, “is that our research provides insight into the most vulnerable and affected groups and we can pay attention to their specific needs and take care of them as they take care of the rest of us.”