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Dr. Allison Arwady

Dr. Allison Arwady, the Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner speaks to the public at City Hall on January 4, 2022. Arwady spoke Monday about the city’s decline in life expectancy due to COVID-19 and heart disease.

Manuel Martinez

Life expectancy of Chicagoans dropped by two years during the first year of the pandemic

New data from the Chicago Department of Public Health reveals how COVID-19 devastated Chicagoans during the first year of the pandemic in 2020, with life expectancy dropping by about two years, to 75 years.

That’s the largest single-year decline on record, according to the public health department. Black, Latino and Asian Chicagoans had the steepest declines.

Among other key findings:

  • Overall, deaths among Chicagoans climbed 30%. By racial groups, the death rate among Latinos increased more than 60%, while 18- to 44-year-olds had the biggest spike in death rates among all age groups, with a 45% increase.
  • For the first time in nearly 20 years, the life expectancy for Black Chicagoans fell below 70 years.
  • Latino Chicagoans experienced a more than three-year drop in life expectancy between 2019 and 2020 — the steepest decline for any racial group. Latinos have lost more than seven years of life expectancy since 2012.

“We have to look ourselves and our city in the eye and deal with the devastating impact of what’s transpired … over these last two years,” Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said on Monday at Phalanx Family Services near the city’s Pullman neighborhood on the South Side, where she shared the city’s latest trove of data during a wide-ranging roundtable discussion.

The results are sobering, but perhaps not surprising. In Chicago, one of the most segregated cities in the U.S., Black and Latino residents had been infected with and died from COVID-19 disproportionately. That glaring disparity has been at the forefront as the pandemic has dragged on. It has been the focus of effort after effort to combat the virus and address social issues the pandemic exacerbated: the need for more food, better housing and a steady paycheck.

While COVID-19 deaths fueled the life expectancy drop during the first year of the pandemic, heart disease was the main killer in 2020, the city said.

But overall, the main drivers of a lower life expectancy were chronic diseases, including heart disease, cancer and diabetes, as well as homicides and opioid overdoses, among other causes.

“The life expectancy gap isn’t just about the causes that show up on the death certificate most often, but what drives those causes,” Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said in a statement. “There is no miracle cure, no shortcut to closing the life expectancy gap. Collectively, the City and its partners must do the work to fundamentally transform the conditions in which people live — by ending the pandemic and by addressing its impacts on access to services, housing, education, and economic opportunities, as well as people’s mental health.”

To understand how Chicagoans were impacted during the pandemic, the city surveyed residents, asking if they lost their jobs, experienced violence, put off paying for food or if they lost money to care for their children.

The city learned nearly 60% of Latinos, just over 50% of Asians and 43% of both Black and white Chicagoans who were surveyed lost their jobs or lost pay.

Around 40% of both Latino and Black residents lost money to care for their children, compared to 16% of white Chicagoans.

Consider how important having a connection to a physician is during a pandemic. Yet 35% of Black Chicagoans lost health care coverage, compared to 19% of white residents.

During the roundtable with Lightfoot, Arwady and four other community leaders and health care providers discussed not just what fueled the widening life expectancy gap, but also solutions to narrow it.

There is a new public health program, for example, that sends a nurse to the home of new mothers around three weeks after giving birth, to see what other needs she and her family might have.

“It is a very vulnerable time after mom, great aunt and everybody goes home,” said Arwady, who wants to take this program citywide.

There’s an ambitious collaboration on the South Side that aims to bring much-needed doctors to an area that has watched medical services vanish over the years.

And the city is almost a year into a program that has carved Chicago up into so-called health equity zones. The goal is to keep boosting vaccination rates, while also addressing other social needs, such as increasing access to good-paying jobs and medical care.

But, there is still much work to be done.

“I think in my lifetime this will be the moment for health and health care and medicine,” said Dr. Melissa Simon, co-chair of the health and policy committee of Illinois Unidos, a local advocacy group for the Latino community that formed during the pandemic. “This is the moment when we take that, harness the power of that collectively, and we hold people’s feet to the fire and we move forward in a way that is innovative, creative, thoughtful, hyperlocal and for everyone.”

Kristen Schorsch covers public health and Cook County on WBEZ’s government and politics desk. Follow her @kschorsch.

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