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Opinion: "COVID-19 Pandemic - What Has Work Got to Do With It?"

The Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine published an editorial co-authored by Dr. Pouran D. Faghri, UCLA Fielding School of Public Health professor of environmental health sciences, about the impact of the COVID-19 epidemic among workers

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Since the start of the COVID-19 global pandemic more than 200 countries and territories have experienced devastating public health, social, and economic effects. Among those falling ill in large numbers in the United States are workers in occupations or industries deemed “essential,” critical to maintaining services to society during the pandemic. While definitions vary, “essential workers” typically include workers in health care, food and agriculture, manufacturing, emergency response, and transportation. Essential workers whose work cannot be done from home, or those who work in close proximity to others (increasing the risk of exposure) also tend to have lower incomes. Some groups of essential workers are at increased risk of COVID-19.

As well, African American and Latinx communities have been particularly hard hit by the coronavirus, with a disproportionate number of infections and deaths. Black, Native American, and Hispanic/Latinx workers are more likely to be essential workers who work in person and close to others and have lower incomes compared with white workers. Immigrant workers are also more likely to be essential workers than native-born workers. One study reported racial/ethnic disparities in job characteristics such as inability to work from home and work in public safety, public utility, food or health care. African American and Latinx workers are disproportionately represented in manufacturing, grocery, meatpacking, and transit, which have also seen widespread workplace outbreaks of COVID-19.

In this paper, we examine two issues that impact on the magnitude and severity of the COVID-19 epidemic among workers—those work-related factors that increase the likelihood of exposure to SARS-CoV-2 and to infection (differential exposure) among workers, including being an essential worker, and work-related risk factors impacting the severity (differential vulnerability) of COVID-19 illness. Stressful working and low-income living conditions15 increase the risk of comorbid conditions, such as cardiovascular disease (CVD), hypertension, and diabetes, as well as impaired immune function, all of which increase the likelihood of severe illness if exposed to SARS-CoV-2.