Researchers Speak With KWGS About Study On Outsized Impact Of COVID Among Non-White Oklahomans

Sep 4, 2020

A new study in the Journal of the Oklahoma State Medical Association looked at disparities among racial and ethnic lines in Oklahoma's COVID-19 patients over 12 weeks, from April through July.

KWGS's Chris Polansky spoke with first author Janitzio Guzmán, MD, infectious diseases fellow at the National Institutes for Health, and senior author Kimberly Martin, DO, MPH, assistant professor of pediatrics and pediatric infectious diseases doctor at the University of Oklahoma - Tulsa, about their findings. (The study was also co-authored by University of Oklahoma - Tulsa pediatrics researchers Amy Hendrix and Elise Knowlton.)

A transcript of the conversation, edited and condensed for clarity, appears below.

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KWGS: So, I was hoping you could just start by giving, kind of, the executive summary, the main takeaway of what you were looking at and what you found.

GUZMÁN: Sure. I think as we undertook this project, we ended up finding that the people who are being affected by COVID in Oklahoma have been changing over time since the start of this pandemic. I think, similar to trends that we've seen across the country, in Oklahoma our data suggests that patients from non-white communities are being affected at disproportionate rates that previously were not observed with COVID infection.

MARTIN: I would just echo what Dr. Guzmán said. It was very stark when we saw, in graphic representation, the changes over time and the changes based upon both race and ethnicity. When you actually see it, it makes it a lot more real, and we felt like it was easier to have action for those communities when we see those numbers being so disparate.

KWGS: So it looks like from reading the paper that one of the biggest changes you saw was in the Hispanic/Latinx population. Can you talk a little bit about those numbers?

GUZMÁN: Sure. So, when we look at the changes in the cases in the state of Oklahoma, we noticed that the proportion of Hispanic individuals who were reported as being COVID-positive actually changed from something like 8.1% of cases in the first week of our study, which, again, was early in April, to by the 12th week, now in July, they represented 20.4% of the COVID-positive population. So it was a very significant increase in the overall number of Hispanics that were represented among COVID-positive patients. It was a very significant trend.

KWGS: There's a section in here marked "Limitations." Can you talk a little bit about what limited your research, or ability to dig as deep as you wanted, or things like that?

MARTIN: I think one of the major limitations is this is all publicly available data. None of this is data that we've actually been able to get that is behind-the-scenes, if you will. So we're just looking at all the information that is available in all of the reporting that the state has done, in their weekly, in their daily counts, and really just trying to synthesize that information. That's a major limitation for many papers like this, for many studies, because we don't have any insider information. We're really just using all that data that's available.

KWGS: Is there anything you're hoping that policy-makers will take out of this study? Any policy recommendations you have for Oklahoma?

GUZMÁN: That's a good question. I think when you look at how our study was designed, its intention was not to be able to single out a particular cause of why these populations are being affected. So is there specific policy? Maybe not, necessarily. But our hope was to give information that would drive folks to generate hypotheses and ideas of why it is that this is occurring in these populations. So I certainly think, and I think we alluded to it in our write-up, that this is a great opportunity for individuals, both at the local and at the state level, to really examine some of these populations that we see these trends in and determine: is there some specific factor? Is there some resource that maybe these populations could be connected to that would reduce their risk of transmission and reduce their risk of bad outcomes from this particular infection?

MARTIN: I agree with that. I think our main issue was: how can we use this data to help people who are going to be making policy? And we felt like in terms of the populations that did seem like they were seeing changes, spicifically the non-white communities, how could we use this data to put forth education? And that's really what I think is the most important thing, is to educate these populations in terms of, this is disproportionately affecting your community, we really want to give you the tools to be able to understand the infection, but then also how can you mitigate this infection?

KWGS: We reported recently about these weekly White House reports that have been going to Gov. Stitt, which, up until recently, haven't been shared with local leaders, local governments, health departments. And a number of officials were very frustrated, expressed that they felt information was being kept from them. The governor is releasing those now. Do you think that kind of thing is important to be shared? Something going from the federal government to the state government and then down to local authorities?

MARTIN: Yes, we're very encouraged that we're going to be getting those White House reports. Just so we can look through the data, look through the recommendations. I do think that any bit of information that is provided is going to help.

GUZMÁN: I just have to agree. I think in the spirit of collaboration and making sure that the interventions that we as a state roll out are really targeted to the communities that are being affected disproportionately, it's so, so important that we're sharing that crucial information. Not only from the national level down, but also from the local level up, because by doing so they can really fine-tune and address the specific needs of those communities.

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