Pennsylvania’s health indicators brace for impact from COVID-19

A new report finds residents in Pennsylvania struggle with obesity, suicide and racial disparities in health outcomes, and the pandemic’s impact on all three could make the problems worse.

The data comes from the 31st annual America’s Health Rankings analysis, compiled by the United Health Foundation. While the foundation decided against providing an overall ranking for each state — based on the unmeasured impact of COVID-19 – researchers still scored based on four determinants of health: social and economic factors, physical environment, clinical care, and behaviors.

While Pennsylvania ranks among the top 10 states for clinical care access, the state lags in the bottom 20 for both environmental and social and economic factors that impact health, said Dr. Rhonda Randall, executive vice president and chief medical officer of United Healthcare.

Among the data, some collected as recently as 2018, Pennsylvania ranked 49th in the nation for racial disparities in infants with low birth weight. There’s also high rates of segregated housing and lead exposure, Randall said.

“It’s really valuable to put all of this in context,” Randall told The Center Square on Thursday. “Understanding what direction we were going prior to the pandemic gives us good information on where to drill down and where to affect our resources. Many of these indicators will worsen.”

The report defines low birth weight as infants who weigh less than 5 pounds 8 ounces at birth. These children are at risk for increased risk of mortality and short term and long term complications, including lung and heart problems, brain bleeds, intestinal disorders, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, cerebral palsy and learning and behavioral problems. The gap between races of children born at this size widened 28 percent in Pennsylvania between 2017 and 2018, according to the report.

Obesity and suicide also rose sharply, at 16 percent and 26 percent, respectively, between 2011 and 2019 – mirroring a national trend seen in both categories. Health analysts have said the pandemic could exacerbate risk factors for both issues as levels of anxiety, depression and mental distress continue rising.

“Obesity is one of those trends that has been going in the wrong direction for most of the last 30 years,” Randall said. “Thirty-two percent of adults are self-reporting that their BMI is higher than 30. So we know that this number is under-reported and it’s probably higher than what we see here.”

But it’s not all bad news for Pennsylvania, Randall said. Flu vaccination rates increased 19 percent between 2018 and 2019, while smoking decreased 18 percent among adults between 2013 and 2019. Randall said the state also reports high rates of childhood vaccination. And even though the pandemic will shift many of the statistics, Randall said the report still provides a valuable starting point for lawmakers.

“It’s that granular level of detail that really helps policymakers really understand where to put their efforts,” she said.

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