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The Personal Impact of COVID-19 on the Biomedical Workforce

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2 years 1 month
11.10.20 By Marie A. Bernard
Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 Spike Protein
Credit: NIH

While we last looked at how the COVID-19 pandemic has shifted institutional policies, this post will focus on the effect the pandemic has had on individuals in the U.S. biomedical workforce. The burden placed on individuals from underrepresented groups (URGs) is not equal, and ranges from research productivity to health outcomes.

Research Productivity

In academics, journal submissions are often where the rubber hits the road for measuring productivity. Several journals are reporting a surge in manuscript submissions during COVID-19 [1, 2] potentially due to work environments shifting to allow more time to analyze data and to write.

However, female professors are reporting that their research productivity has been negatively impacted by COVID-19. It is already known that there is a gender divide in academic manuscript submissions. And as you would expect, journals are reporting that women are submitting fewer academic papers than their male peers [1]. Interestingly, the American Journal of Political Science reports that while submissions are up for manuscripts that include a woman as an author during the COVID-19 pandemic (38% to the longer term 35%), solo-authored manuscripts by females have gone down (17% from 22%) [3]. This suggests women have less time to submit their own work than men do.

In addition to manuscript submissions, research productivity is also measurable in terms of grant applications (and awards!). It’s too soon to know the extent of the impact that COVID-19 has had on applicants from URGs but look for research about this from my office in the future!

Non-Academic Duties

Responsibilities of family life disproportionately impacts individuals from URGs.

Sex remains the primary predictor of household labor allocation. Even at the higher professional level, women are more likely than men to shoulder the majority of household labor, childcare, and dependent adult care responsibilities [4]. Assessments are currently underway to determine if the current pandemic is creating an unanticipated burden of caregiving, due to illness or loss, on individuals from URGs.

One of the unanticipated results of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the closure of schools, as the educational system shifted to a virtual learning model. Women and others from URGs are more likely to be called on to perform household tasks, like homeschool children, that take away from time that could be spent on advancing their academic careers, like writing papers or applying for grants [5]. To make matters worse, services that had been established to address these issues, like childcare at the workplace, have been cancelled due to the pandemic. Even having two parents at home is not necessarily a solution as there can be an exacerbation of gender inequalities in these situations [6].

Health Effects

COVID-19 infection, hospitalization and mortality disproportionately affect individuals from URGs, including both racial/ethnic as well as socioeconomically disadvantaged groups [7].

A study looking at over 500,000 patients in New York found that Black/African American and Hispanic patients had a 1.6 increased chance of death compared to Whites during the COVID time period [8]. A similar study of 14,086 patients treated in northern California found that non-Hispanic Black/African American patients had 2.7 increased odds of hospitalization compared to non-Hispanic White patients [9]. On a larger scale, the CDC maintains an up-to-date COVID data tracker that reports the race/ethnicity, age and sex of COVID-19 cases and deaths across the United States [10]. This data shows that some groups are being disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

The federal government first acknowledged a disparity in health outcomes in the United States in 1985 [11]. These health disparities continue to exist today [12] and there is clear evidence that they were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Because opportunity is inextricably linked to health, establishing and sustaining diversity in the biomedical workforce will require a measured and deliberate response to the health disparity brought to light by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Parting Thoughts

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing inequities. Research productivity of women as measured by manuscript submission has been negatively affected, and this impact is likely for other URGs. The disparities that have existed in health outcomes and non-academic duties have magnified. The only true solution that preserves diversity in the U.S. biomedical workforce is to take a data-driven and deliberate approach to provide individuals an equitable situation.

1. Flaherty, C., Early journal submission data suggest COVID-19 is tanking women's research productivity. Inside Higher Ed, 2020. Available from: https://www.insidehighered.com/print/news/2020/04/21/early-journal-submission-data-suggest-covid-19-tanking-womens-research-productivity.
2. Kibbe, M.R., Consequences of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Manuscript Submissions by Women. JAMA Surgery, 2020. 155(9): p. 803-804. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1001/jamasurg.2020.3917.
3. Dolan, K., Lawless, JL. It Takes a Submission: Gendered Patterns in the Pages of AJPS. 2020; Available from: https://ajps.org/2020/04/20/it-takes-a-submission-gendered-patterns-in-the-pages-of-ajps/.
4. Erickson, R.J., Why Emotion Work Matters: Sex, Gender, and the Division of Household Labor. Journal of Marriage and Family, 2005. 67(2): p. 337-351. Available from: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3600273.
5. Malisch, J.L., et al., Opinion: In the wake of COVID-19, academia needs new solutions to ensure gender equity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2020. 117(27): p. 15378. Available from: http://www.pnas.org/content/117/27/15378.abstract.
6. Minello, A. The pandemic and the female academic. 2020; Available from: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-01135-9.
7. Stokes, E.K., et al., Coronavirus Disease 2019 Case Surveillance - United States, January 22-May 30, 2020. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep, 2020. 69(24): p. 759-765. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7302472/.
8. Golestaneh, L., et al., The association of race and COVID-19 mortality. EClinicalMedicine, 2020: p. 100455. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7361093/.
9. Azar, K.M.J., et al., Disparities In Outcomes Among COVID-19 Patients In A Large Health Care System In California. Health Aff (Millwood), 2020. 39(7): p. 1253-1262. Available from: https://www.healthaffairs.org/doi/10.1377/hlthaff.2020.00598.
10. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC COVID Data Tracker. 2020; Available from: https://covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/#demographics.
11. Heckler, M., Report of the Secretary's Task Force on Black & Minority Health. 1985, Washington, D.C. Available from: https://minorityhealth.hhs.gov/assets/pdf/checked/1/ANDERSON.pdf.
12. National Academies of Sciences, E. and Medicine, Communities in Action: Pathways to Health Equity, ed. J.N. Weinstein, et al. 2017, Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. 582. Available from: https://www.nap.edu/catalog/24624/communities-in-action-pathways-to-health-equity.

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