The odds of being hospitalized for COVID-19 in Louisiana during the pandemic’s first year were 80% higher for Black cancer patients than for white cancer patients, according to new research — findings that underscores pervasive racial inequities in health outcomes throughout the state.

The researchers from LSU Health Sciences Center and the state’s health department analyzed data from the Louisiana Tumor Registry, looking at over 6,000 Louisianians who were diagnosed with cancer between 2015 and 2019 and also tested positive for COVID-19 in 2020. They only looked at cases from 2020, prior to when testing was widespread in hospital admissions regardless of condition, so they could look exclusively at patients being hospitalized for COVID-19. (By 2021, hospitals were testing all patients they admitted for COVID-19.)

Even among patients with cancer — who have experienced greater risk for severe COVID-19 complications, higher rates of hospitalization for COVID-19 and greater mortality rates — researchers found racial disparities in hospitalizations and chronic disease. And researchers said that these disparities have a lot to do with how chronic diseases are prevented and treated. 

Of the cases they analyzed, 31.6% of the positive COVID-19 cases were of Black patients, which is close to the percentage of Black people in Louisiana (32.8%). But 27.2% of Black cancer patients with COVID-19 ended up being hospitalized while 17.2% of White cancer patients with the virus were hospitalized. The findings of the study were published Tuesday (Sept. 12) in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

But lead study author Dr. Xiao-Cheng Wu and her colleagues found that Black cancer patients with COVID-19 had a higher rate of chronic diseases such as hypertension, diabetes and kidney disease than white cancer patients. And they found that the prevalence of chronic diseases, which has been shown to increase the risk of worse COVID-19 outcomes, explained about 38% of the racial disparity in hospitalizations.

“This study provides more stark evidence that enduring racial health disparities affected hospitalizations associated with COVID-19,” said Wu, professor of epidemiology at LSU Health Sciences Center and director of the Louisiana Tumor Registry.

Michelle R. Smith, the director of the Minority Health & Health Equity Research Center at Dillard University, said the inequities discovered in the study develop because of social and economic conditions that also impact health. 

“These are conditions in the environments where people are born, live, learn, work, play, worship, and age. African Americans often face disparities in social determinants of health, such as lack of equal access to healthcare, racism, low economic stability, and inadequate housing and education, to name a few,” said Smith, who was not involved in the study. “These disparities negatively impact one’s health, well-being and quality of life and in turn can make individuals more vulnerable to health issues related to COVID, including hospitalizations.”

This latest study adds to a growing body of academic literature on the racial disparities in COVID-19 health outcomes between Black and white people in Louisiana, including research on disparities in the overall mortality rate and how air pollution contributed to racial disparities in mortality.

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Veteran journalist Drew Costley (they/them/theirs) is joining Verite News to cover a variety of topics with a focus on health, climate and environmental inequity. Before coming to Verite, they reported...