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Rutgers dean discusses disproportionate impact of pandemic on LGBTQ+ community

Perry N. Halkitis, dean of the Rutgers School of Public Health and director of the Center for Health, Identity, Behavior and Prevention Studies, said there needs to be an increase in medical data regarding the LGBTQ+ community in order to better address their healthcare needs.  – Photo by Rutgers.edu

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently published a study finding that LGBTQ+ individuals are more likely to have pre-existing medical conditions that leave them more susceptible to severe cases of coronavirus disease (COVID-19). 

Perry N. Halkitis, dean of the Rutgers School of Public Health and director of the Center for Health, Identity, Behavior and Prevention Studies (CHIBPS), discussed the disproportionate effects that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the LGBTQ+ population, especially LGBTQ+ people of color. 

Based on data from a recent CHIBPS study, he said approximately 9 percent of LGBTQ+ individuals involved tested positive for COVID-19 and 40 percent had COVID-19 antibodies — both higher rates than the national averages at the time.

Halkitis said these inequities go beyond infection rates and affect LGBTQ+ people’s employment status as well, especially since a substantial portion of the LGBTQ+ community are front-line workers.

“We looked at our sample and, of those (LGBTQ+) people who were employed prior to COVID-19, (approximately) 27 percent reported they lost their jobs or were being furloughed,” he said.

In addition to sexual orientation and gender identity, race plays a major role in pandemic-related disparities, with people of color having disproportionately higher COVID-19 hospitalization and mortality rates, according to the CDC .

The Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law and Public Policy recently released a study that found that approximately 15 percent of LGBTQ+ people of color tested positive for COVID-19 compared to 7 percent of LGBTQ+ individuals who are white, Halkitis said.

“Race interacts significantly with sexual and gender identity and, therefore, you can’t separate the two,” he said.

Halkitis said that minority stress theory indicates that people who are minorities, which can be in terms of race, sexual orientation, gender identity, economic status, etc., endure stigmas including racism, homophobia and economic insecurity. For people with multiple minority statuses, such as LGBTQ+ people of color, these stigmas can compound into stress and make them more vulnerable to health problems, he said.

“We think about (COVID-19) purely as a biological disease, but in fact, it’s a social disease …” Halkitis said. “It’s a disease that cuts through every aspect of people’s lives.”

He said that a large issue in quantifying the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 and other diseases on the LGBTQ+ community is the lack of medical data available. One way this can be addressed is through the redesigning of patient intake forms, such as those used for COVID-19 testing, so that they include options to indicate sexual orientation and gender identity, Halkitis said.

“The bottom line for us, for advocates for LGBTQ+ people and their health, is that we must create intake forms on every healthcare form in this country that asks people to identify their sexual and gender identity,” he said. “We need to make it a normal occurrence and it needs to be a basic demographic that we gather.”

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