Ching Vang prepares for the funeral of his father, Wang Ye Vang, who died after contracting COVID-19 in November 2020. Credit: Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Immigrants in Minnesota died at twice the rate of U.S.-born Minnesotans from COVID-19 during the first year of the pandemic, according to a recent University of Minnesota study. 

The study also found that foreign-born Minnesotans died of COVID-19 at younger ages than the U.S-born population, and that foreign-born men died of the virus at higher rates than women. 

The survey is similar to a study conducted last year that disaggregated Asian COVID-19 death data and found high death rates in the local Hmong and Karen communities. Both studies, which shared two of the same researchers, used state death certificate records to identify people’s country of origin.

Kim Horner, a Ph.D. student in public affairs at the university’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs and lead author of the report, said she pursued the study to address the scarcity of data available on how COVID-19 has impacted immigrants. 

“At the beginning of the pandemic, we had a lot of anecdotal information raising concerns that the immigrant population was probably going to be more affected,” Horner said. Immigrants, she noted, are more likely to work in essential jobs and live in multi-generation homes. “But we didn’t have the data for that.”

While testing and case counts in Minnesota collect information by race, they do not ask for a person’s country of origin. Death certificates, on the other hand, list this information, as well as cause of death, and they exist in the public record. 

The raw data don’t tell the whole story

Horner and university researchers Elizabeth Wrigley-Field, an assistant professor of sociology, and JP Leider, a senior lecturer of public health, analyzed 5,500 death certificates in the state, all from 2020. Horner, Wrigley-Field, and Leider adjusted the populations by age and gender. 

The state’s foreign-born population skews younger. For example, 45 percent of Minnesota’s immigrants are between ages 25 and 44 while the U.S.-born state population has a greater share of people ages 55 and older, according to 2019 data by the Minnesota Demographic Center. Older people are far more likely to die of COVID-19 than younger people. 

This chart, from the University of Minnesota, shows the percentage of deaths in Minnesota caused by COVID-19 by age group for the year 2020. Dark bars are deaths of the foreign-born population. Many of these deaths are clustered from the mid-40s through the mid-60s. White bars (and silhouettes) are deaths of U.S.-born people. Most of these deaths occur in the elderly: ages 80-plus. Credit: University of Minnesota

Looking at all deaths, the death rate for U.S.-born and foreign-born populations appear relatively similar. For U.S.-born men, that rate is 141 deaths per 100,000 people while foreign-born men died at a rate of 160 per 100,000. 

The raw death-rate for foreign-born women was actually less than for U.S-born women, at 125 compared to 133 per 100,000 people.

But the researchers wanted to compare these groups at similar ages: For instance, how did 50-year-old immigrants in Minnesota fare compared to 50-year-olds born in the U.S.? (Again, immigrant populations in Minnesota include more people who are younger and fewer seniors.)

“We want to be able to compare 30-year-olds to 30-year-olds and 65-year-olds to 65-year-olds,” Horner said. 

After adjusting for age—so that each age bracket had the same numbers of people—the authors found much greater discrepancies between the groups.

Foreign-born men died of COVID-19 at a rate of 320 per 100,000 compared to U.S-born men dying at 144 per 100,000. For foreign-born women, the death rate equaled 210 per 100,000 while U.S. born women died at a rate of 117 per 100,000. 

The researchers’ takeaway: Immigrants were more likely to die from COVID-19 at younger ages than people born in the U.S. 

The study also compared immigrant communities to U.S.-born communities of color and found the same trend: Foreign-born people of color died at higher rates than Black, Latino, and Asian peers who were born in the U.S. 

These conclusions echo similar findings from a report last year from APM Research Lab, which is a division of American Public Media that conducts research on public policy topics.

Horner said these results show the need for policies that protect immigrant communities from unnecessary risks and support for families who’ve lost loved ones. The authors shared the results of the study with community organizations and government entities like the City of Minneapolis’s Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs. 

The three researchers plan to conduct similar studies using 2021 death certificate data, once it’s available.

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. He has been a journalist for 15 years. Before joining Sahan Journal, he worked for close to a decade in New Mexico, where his reporting prompted the resignation...