Alec Cohen/Daily. Buy this photo.

COVID-19 cases and death rates are highest in correlation with the percentage of racial and ethnic minorities in a county’s population, researchers from the University of Michigan Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation have found. 

The group of researchers developing this study told The Michigan Daily they wanted to compare the importance of social factors with the rate communities are contracting COVID-19, as well as the communities that are suffering the most deaths. 

The researchers used the Social Vulnerability Index to analyze the vulnerability and disadvantage of each community in a broad domain, according to Renuka Tipirneni, assistant professor of internal medicine. This index was developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to analyze how social factors influence a community’s COVID-19 risk.

According to an article by Michigan News, the SVI gives each county a 10-point score to analyze how social measures influence the number of cases in each county. Some examples of these measures are poverty rate, income and education level, housing type and English language ability. The measures also include single-parent families, percentage of people over 65 or under 17, access to a personal vehicle, racial and ethnic minority population percentage and disability.

Monita Karmakar, a senior statistician with the division of general medicine within the department of internal medicine, said the main goal of the research was to see if a social association existed between the social demographic risk factors and U.S. COVID-19 incidence and mortality rate at a county-level analysis.

“Initially, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S., we saw a lot of incidents and mortality and a lot of burden of the disease amongst minority communities,” Karamakar said. “Which led us to think that there might be some kind of neighborhood-level disadvantage that increases one’s chances of getting the disease and eventually mortality from the disease.”

Tipirneni said the group found that the higher the level of SVI or disadvantage, the higher the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths were in that county.

As vaccines are beginning to be distributed across the state, Tipirneni said she believes this index could also benefit the state of Michigan with targeting the supply and demand of distributing vaccines.

“This index is already being used in a variety of ways that I think are useful, and then we could think of other ways to use it in the future,” Tipirneni said. “The state health department in Michigan has actually been using the Social Vulnerability Index to target specific communities at higher risk for increased testing for COVID-19 for increased resources.”

Since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been many counties in Michigan that have been known as hotspots due to the increased amount of COVID-19 cases in that area. Tipirnei shared that the countries with the most cases at the time of their analysis were Macomb, Wayne and Oakland Counties. 

“More of these areas did have higher Social Vulnerability Index scores, and the other factor that is pretty evident when you look at the county list is that they were mostly in Metro Detroit, which we know was the original epicenter of our state,” Tipirneni said.

Tiperneni said using measures of social risk or social vulnerability can also allow researchers to identify hotspots before they come up during the next epidemic or pandemic. 

On campus, students have seen Washtenaw County become a much higher-risk setting. Specifically, the University has responded to the situation by increasing testing and beginning vaccine distribution during the Winter 2021 semester. 

Business freshman Alexandra Vogel said she has seen disadvantaged communities suffer from COVID-19 differently than affluent areas, as low-income individuals in the former have less access to healthcare and have less access to testing and vaccinations.

“I also believe that it affects people over 65 more drastically as they are more prone to illness and aren’t the healthiest they have ever been,” Vogel said. “On campus, I think Michigan tries to do a good job of spreading out their resources to all different groups of students and faculty. However, those immunocompromised students and older faculty members will not be able to attend most in-person opportunities regardless of the resources provided.” 

Looking forward, Tipirneni said the group is interested in repeating this study specifically to analyze the outbreaks of COVID-19 in Washtenaw County, especially since there were multiple outbreaks among students and community members during the fall.

“I would be really interested in the next few weeks (in) repeating the analysis now with an additional six months, since when we did this analysis it was with data as of July 2020,” Tipirneni said. “Washtenaw County has a lower to lower middle-end range of Social Vulnerability Index scores, and the caseloads there in July were corresponding to that.”

Daily Staff Reporter Kaitlyn Luckoff can be reached at

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown challenges at all of us — including The Michigan Daily — but that hasn’t stopped our staff. We’re committed to reporting on the issues that matter most to the community where we live, learn and work. Your donations keep our journalism free and independent. You can support our work here.

For a weekly roundup of the best stories from The Michigan Daily, sign up for our newsletter here.