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A USF study shows retail and service workers have higher COVID-19 death rates

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Daylina Miller
WUSF Public Media
People who work in jobs that don't allow them to work from home or have paid sick leave were more likely to die from COVID-19, a USF epidemiologist found.

People who worked in labor and service jobs were a lot more likely to die from COVID-19. Researchers say improving ventilation and offering paid sick leave are some ways to protect workers in the future.

Laborers and service industry workers with lower levels of education were about five times more likely to die from COVID-19 than people in higher socioeconomic positions, according to a study co-authored by a University of South Florida professor.

Researchers analyzed nearly 70,000 COVID deaths in 2020 for adults ages 25 to 64 and also looked at whether individuals had any college education and what job sectors they worked in.

The team found 68% of COVID-19 deaths among working age adults during the first year of the pandemic were people in low socioeconomic positions with jobs in labor, retail and the service industry.

These jobs typically required on-site attendance and prolonged close contact with others.

Jason Salemi, an epidemiologist with USF’s College of Public Health, is calling for improvements to workplace safety in those industries. Too often, he says, employers and safety officials focus on personal protective equipment like masks to curb infections. That is important, but Salemi argues a lot more needs to be done to protect frontline workers who have a higher chance of being exposed to the coronavirus.

“We need to think about ventilation and filtration of the air for those who work in public indoor settings,” he suggested, adding, “Stressing the importance of testing and not coming into work sick, maybe offering paid sick leave if they [staff] do test positive.”

The study was published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. It found white women made up the largest population group considered high “SEP,” or socioeconomic position, which involved having at least a bachelor’s degree. More than half of Hispanic men analyzed in the data were in a low SEP. According to the study, the mortality rate of low SEP Hispanic men is 27 times higher than high SEP white women.

Salemi said he hopes the study raises awareness that “getting back to normal” does not mean the same thing for everyone. Workers in high-risk industries continue to face threats as coronavirus cases surge now.

“And even if they don't get hospitalized, if they get sick, they might have to go home, they might not be able to make money during that time,” he said. “So just recognize that the simple steps we're able to take to bring down community transmission does an exceptional job at protecting these individuals.”

Salemi authored the study with a team of researchers from the COVKID Project, which monitors data about the pandemic’s affect on children and teens. In this case, he said, they were studying the toll the virus has taken on the parents and grandparents of many young people.

The team plans to look at 2021 and 2022 data in the future to see how the availability of COVID-19 vaccines affects disparities in mortality.

I cover health care for WUSF and the statewide journalism collaborative Health News Florida. I’m passionate about highlighting community efforts to improve the quality of care in our state and make it more accessible to all Floridians. I’m also committed to holding those in power accountable when they fail to prioritize the health needs of the people they serve.
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