COVID is color blind: For ICU patients, race makes little difference in virus outcomes

DETROIT, Mich. — Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, there has been tremendous focus on the disparity in cases among people of color. Data continues to show Black and Hispanic populations typically experience higher rates of COVID infection, hospitalization, and death. Now, however, a new study finds race makes little difference for COVID patients once they reach the intensive care unit.

Researchers at Henry Ford Hospital say race did not influence the length of ICU stay or hospital mortality rates during their study. A patient’s ethnicity also did not appear to impact whether they required a ventilator or not either.

“What we wanted to look at was once patients are in the ICU, does that same racial disproportion occur. And the answer is no,” says lead study author Michael Lazar, M.D., a Henry Ford pulmonology and critical care medicine physician, in a media release. “The care we deliver is essentially the same and race makes no difference.”

Patients of color actually fare better in hospitals?

Surprisingly, researchers find patients of color actually had a lower 28-day mortality rate than white patients. Unfortunately, the good news in the short term does come with a catch.

Study authors discovered many COVID deaths among patients of color occurred long after they did in other races; pushing the deaths outside of the standard 28-day study window. In the days and weeks following that observed 28-day period, nine more ICU COVID patients passed away. Researchers report seven of these individuals were either African American or Hispanic.

The team believes their work speaks more to the level of care in ICU centers than any overarching racial differences.

“What we do in the intensive care is driven by protocol and everyone is approached similarly,” notes senior study author Jeffrey Jennings, M.D., a Henry Ford pulmonology and critical care medicine physician.

Study authors analyzed electronic medical records for 365 adult COVID-19 patients admitted to the ICU between March and July 2020. Researchers separated the data into two groups, Caucasians or patients of color. The second group included those of Arab, Black, Asian, and Hispanic descent.

Overall, mortality between those two groups was just about equal, with 50 percent dying of COVID. Nearly 75 percent of the entire sample required ventilator support at some point. The study notes many patients were given steroids during their treatment, but researchers do not consider these drugs to be a significant predictor of mortality.

The study appears in the journal Critical Care Medicine.