Essential workers in kitchens and in agricultural settings are most at risk of death from the coronavirus, according to a study that adds a new urgency to the race to vaccinate those on the front lines of the pandemic.
The study, conducted by researchers at the University of California-San Francisco, examined the occupations of those who have died in California since the beginning of 2016. In the past year, researchers found an especially high rate of excess mortality — the measure of how many people died over what might have been an ordinary period — among those who work in proximity to others.
Line cooks experienced the most substantial number of excess death in 2020, the study found, followed by agriculture workers, bakers and construction laborers. Those who work in delivery occupations — shipping clerks, truck operators and delivery drivers — also experienced higher rates of death last year.
The risk of death for those groups was between 30 and 60 percent greater than in an otherwise normal year, the study found. Deaths spiked especially in the months after California began reopening its economy.
The authors said death rates were especially high for minorities serving in those jobs. Black and Hispanic workers are more likely to hold service jobs that put them in close contact with the general public than are white workers, who are more likely to have jobs that allow them to work from home.
“In California, per-capita excess mortality is relatively high among Blacks, Latinos, and individuals with low educational attainment,” the authors wrote. “These populations face unique occupational risks because they may disproportionately make up the state’s essential workforce and because essential workers often cannot work from home.”
Among people of Asian descent, the greatest risk increase came in health care workers. The authors noted California has an especially large population of Filipino Americans working in the nursing profession.
California has been the epicenter of the post-Thanksgiving surge in coronavirus infections. More than 3.2 million Californians have tested positive for the virus, and more than 40,000 have died. The authors estimated that 10,000 more Californian residents between the ages of 18 and 65 have died over the past year than would have died in a typical year.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) said Monday the state would begin prioritizing the oldest residents for vaccination against the coronavirus, though the Department of Public Health said restaurant workers and agriculture workers would still be priorities.