AILSA CHANG, HOST:
This week's news about life expectancy in the U.S. and how it dropped overall in 2020 echoes a sobering pattern that we saw all through the pandemic. Latino and Black people were hit the hardest. Life expectancy fell about three years for both groups, compared to 1.2-year drop for white people. We should note, the CDC's data on this didn't include Asian Americans or other racial or ethnic groups. But overall, COVID-19 deaths played the largest role in the life expectancy drop. Dr. Alicia Fernandez at the University of California, San Francisco, has seen the impact on the Bay Area's Black and brown communities firsthand. She studies what's called excess mortality across the state, and she joins us now.
ALICIA FERNANDEZ: Thank you.
CHANG: So can you just first set us up with some context here? I mean, what does it mean when life expectancy numbers drop like this? Like, this isn't something that happens often, right?
FERNANDEZ: No, this is extraordinarily unusual, and it is very sobering and very upsetting because the United States has not seen a drop in life expectancy like this since World War II.
FERNANDEZ: And this is an enormous drop in life expectancy and really reflects the toll that COVID has taken on the U.S. as a whole and on minority communities particularly.
CHANG: And as we mentioned, you've been studying the deaths - or the excess mortality, as it's called - across California. And you found certain trends among Latinos. Can you tell us about those trends?
FERNANDEZ: What we found is that among Latinos who died, Latinos who were immigrant were much more likely to die than Latinos who are U.S. native-born.
CHANG: Oh, interesting.
FERNANDEZ: And Latinos with low levels of education were much more likely to die than those with higher levels of education. And then finally, people working in essential industries had excess death compared to Latinos that did not.
CHANG: And those disparities - I mean, that's not just about COVID disproportionately affecting Latino communities. That's a portrait of the drastic inequalities that this pandemic laid bare, right?
FERNANDEZ: I think what it indicates is who did COVID hit. And I think it points us, along with other studies, as to why. People who needed to work because they worked in health care, they worked in meatpacking industries, they were farm workers, they worked in all aspects of food production and who couldn't stay home were much...
FERNANDEZ: ...More likely to get sick.
FERNANDEZ: And then because immigrant Latinos tend to be poorer and tend to live in more crowded housing, they were more likely to bring home the infections and spread it to other people in their families. And then those folks got sick.
CHANG: And let's just be clear. These patterns, these inequities that you were identifying, they've been known for quite some time. I mean, you spoke to NPR last year and noted how many Hispanic patients you were seeing very sick or dying from COVID, even as the San Francisco Bay Area was starting to flatten its COVID curve. And this was after many reports about the disproportionate impact the pandemic was having on Black and Latino people nationwide. So if these warnings came early on during the pandemic, where did you see missteps in the efforts to try to protect these vulnerable groups?
FERNANDEZ: I think that we could have done much more as a society to make work safer. The other thing that could have been done would have been to ensure that people were able to stay home when they were feeling sick. As you know, lots of people with COVID, even if they're feeling somewhat ill, they'll continue to go to work if they don't have the financial reserves to be able to stay home and don't have paid sick leave.
CHANG: So as the delta variant continues to spread, what specifically do you want to see local, state and federal officials do? And also these industries that were impacted - what do you want to see all of them focus on, as this country moves forward, as the delta variant keeps on spreading?
FERNANDEZ: The biggest way to protect us all from the delta variant is for everyone to be vaccinated. One of the things that all employers should be considering is whether or not a vaccine mandate makes sense in their industry. And while that is controversial for many workers, it will also protect the workers who choose to get vaccinated and choose to go to work. In addition, and most importantly, employers can really help by ensuring that everyone has access to reliable, nuanced information about the vaccine. There is so much misinformation out there that certainly large employers can play a role in that.
CHANG: Dr. Alicia Fernandez, professor of medicine at UCSF and founding director of the university's Latinx Center of Excellence, thank you very much for joining us today.
FERNANDEZ: Thank you.
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