Someone I know refers to 2020 as the lost year. It was, indeed, a year we never could have imagined – months of precious in-person time lost with family and friends, celebrations missed and deaths mourned from afar.
It’s easy to tally the personal losses of 2020, but a CDC report highlights one that touches the entire population. Life expectancy in the United States, it says, dropped by a year and a half in 2020, primarily caused by the pandemic that jolted us out of complacency and routine.
By now, it should not be news that Covid-19 devastated Black and Hispanic communities disproportionately. Past months exposed the health and socioeconomic disparities that have been inflicting Black and brown communities and made them more susceptible to the tenacious virus.
It’s true that life expectancy dropped for the nation’s population as a whole, but Blacks and Hispanics have fared worse than whites. Simply, the CDC reports that life expectancy in 2020 decreased by three years for Hispanics, 2.9 years for non-Hispanic Blacks, and 1.2 years for non-Hispanic whites.
Dr. Kevin Sneed, senior associate vice president, USF Health, and dean of the Taneja College of Pharmacy, finds the CDC report concerning.
“To be perfectly honest, I was profoundly sad. For where the country is in 2021, whenever we have a significant retraction in life expectancy, that means that something has gone significantly wrong with our society. Such a large drop in life expectancy for Black and Hispanic persons is profoundly troubling,” he told me Thursday.
“It means a number of different things, starting with the pandemic, have had a horrific impact on people from these communities. It is rare to have a drop in life expectancy and, in general, it tends to be extremely small if it occurs.”
This week, St. Petersburg City Council members were reminded of the disparity in life expectancy that exists between some of their Black and white constituents. Residents in the mostly white, affluent Snell Isle area are expected to live 16 years longer than those on the other side of town, in the predominantly African-American Campbell Park neighborhood. That was one of the points made by Randall H. Russell, president and CEO of the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg, during a presentation of the foundation’s report at Thursday’s City Council meeting.
Overall, the U.S. life expectancy at birth for the past year was 77.3 years, the lowest since 2003. The drop in life expectancy for the nation’s Hispanic population, the federal government report said, was lower than in 2006, the first year such estimates were done for the Hispanic community.
The report by the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics goes on to note that the narrowing of the gap in life expectancy between the Hispanic and non-Hispanic white populations is “a stark indicator of worsening health and mortality outcomes for a population that paradoxically has been, prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, able to defy expectations consistent with its disadvantaged socioeconomic profile.”
I learned something surprising. The pandemic contributed 90 percent to the drop in life expectancy for Hispanics, while for Blacks it was 59.3 percent. For whites, it was 67.9 percent.
But the drop in the nation’s life expectancy has not been all about the pandemic. So-called “unintentional injuries,” mainly the result of drug overdose deaths and homicides, were among the contributing causes.
Sneed spoke about ways to remedy the nation’s health setback. “We have to redouble our efforts in expanding access to healthcare, improve public health measures, and increase vaccination rates,” he said. “The fourth thing is we have to increase safety for people all across America, especially in communities of color.”
The USF professor and dean also addressed Covid-19 vaccine hesitancy. “I believe that with the efforts of our USF WE-CARE team in the Tampa Bay area and across Florida, I think that vaccine hesitancy overall in communities of color is far less than it was initially,” he said. “However, we are having a particular challenge with younger people, which is an issue with all ethnic groups.”
In recent months, the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County has been offering vaccination programs at churches and community centers, including the Clearwater Hispanic Outreach Center, to reach Black, Hispanic and other communities of color.
It has also partnered with St. Petersburg’s Not My Son grassroots community outreach marketing campaign and intervention effort to get vaccines to youth and their families. The Friday evening events offer shots to anyone 12 and older at the Not My Son rallies, which include incentives such as $10 food vouchers for fully vaccinated people, music and 50 free meals.
The department will offer vaccines at back-to-school clinics at Boca Ciega, Gibbs, Largo and Pinellas Park high schools. It’s also giving shots at its Mid-County center, as well as its St. Petersburg, Pinellas Park and Clearwater locations.
I hope the unvaccinated turn up for the free shots. With cases rising in Florida, fueled by the highly contagious Delta variant, one would think they’ll finally want to be inoculated. Of course, that’s not necessarily so. Think of those health care workers who are still among the vaccine hold-outs.
As I digest the sobering report about the nation’s dip in life expectancy and think of its link to the pandemic, it worries me that many of the vaccinated have completely let down their guard. News of breakthrough infections affecting the vaccinated, including Florida attorney general Ashley Moody, should make everyone a bit cautious.
Which brings me back to masks – again. As schools prepare to reopen, the American Academy of Pediatrics is recommending that all students over 2 years old, along with school staff, wear masks. That’s even if they have been vaccinated.
The outcry has already begun, or should I say, continues. Some parents will complain about the cruelty inflicted on their children by being forced to wear a mask, not thinking for a minute about other children with allergies, asthma or other conditions who need extra protection from this virus.
On a quick trip to Virgina recently, I was impressed with the constant reminders at Tampa, Atlanta and Richmond airports and in the planes about the requirement to masks. No one that I saw kicked up a fuss. In fact, I think that the Southwest pilot on one of my flights should be put in charge of the whole mask issue. Before taking off, he warned that anyone who misbehaved would be put on the naughty list and never fly again. Ever. Everyone was as good as gold.
The thing is, we should all want this pandemic to be over. Our very lives depend on it. We’ve lost enough already.
Not My Son vaccine events
Friday, July 23, 6 p.m.
Historic Bethel AME Church
912 Third Ave. N.
July 30, 6 p.m.
2114 54th Ave. N
August 6, 6 p.m.
Greater Mt. Zion AME Church
1045 16th St. S.
Aug. 13, 6 p.m.
Mt. Zion Progressive MB Church
955 20th St. S.