Deprioritizing People With Asthma for the Covid-19 Vaccine Is a Racial Justice Issue

The CDC says the condition doesn’t put people at a greater risk for severe Covid-19, but there’s an equity argument to be made

Dana G Smith
Momentum
Published in
4 min readFeb 10, 2021

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Photo: FG Trade/Getty Images

On Monday, Massachusetts Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley tweeted that excluding asthma from the list of medical conditions eligible in phase two of the state’s vaccine rollout was “devastating for Black & Brown communities in MA with disproportionately higher rates of asthma” and “both a racial & environmental justice issue.”

Pressley was referring to well-established data showing that Black and Brown people have higher rates of asthma because they have been historically redlined into polluted areas. These communities have also been hit harder by the Covid-19 pandemic, with disproportionately high rates of severe disease and death compared to White Americans.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention categorizes asthma as one condition that “might be at an increased risk” for severe Covid-19. “Might be” carries a lot of weight in that sentence, as it means that asthma is not included on the list of diseases that are currently eligible for vaccination in many states. Those conditions are associated with a more certain increased risk of death from Covid-19, such as cancer, Type 2 diabetes, heart failure, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

It’s hard to see how asthma, a respiratory condition that causes inflammation and dysfunction in the lungs, wouldn’t worsen people’s outcomes from Covid-19. However, a recent review paper reported that, overall, people with asthma actually do not have higher rates of Covid-19 diagnoses, hospitalizations, or deaths than people without asthma.

Individual studies echo these findings, although with a few caveats. In one study of 7,272 people with Covid-19 in Korea, there was no increased risk for severe disease or death in the 686 people with asthma, unless they had experienced a serious asthma attack in the previous year. Similarly, a study from the U.K. found that people who died from Covid-19 were not more likely to have had asthma, unless, again, they’d recently taken an oral corticosteroid to treat an acute flare-up.

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Dana G Smith
Momentum

Health and science writer • PhD in 🧠 • Words in Scientific American, STAT, The Atlantic, The Guardian • Award-winning Covid-19 coverage for Elemental