NJHA analysis shows social determinants predicted communities most impacted by pandemic

Food access, stable housing, steady employment.

All three are key aspects of the growing emphasis on social determinants of health. Identifying where they are absent — and working to alleviate that — could prove helpful in preparing for the next big public health threat.

That’s a key lesson learned in an analysis of New Jersey’s most vulnerable communities and their experience during COVID-19.

The New Jersey Vulnerable Communities Database, developed in 2019 by the New Jersey Hospital Association, shows that many of the ZIP codes hit hardest by COVID were the very same as those identified before the pandemic by NJHA’s vulnerable communities algorithm. All told, seven of the original 10 most vulnerable ZIP codes experienced the highest per capita rate of COVID-19 cases in the pandemic. Those ZIP codes are in Camden (with four of the most highly impacted ZIP codes), Trenton, Newark and Paterson.

The database, developed by NJHA’s Center for Health Analytics, Research and Transformation, contains data on 20 health indicators, including chronic conditions, lack of prenatal care and premature death, along with social measures such as food access, high school graduation rates and employment status.

The scorecard aggregates the findings and then indexes the results across New Jersey’s 537 ZIP codes. The publicly available database, available at www.njha.com/vulnerable-communities, allows users to select a ZIP code and see its relative performance on each of the 20 measures, compared with the state minimum and maximum.

“If you overlay a map of the most vulnerable ZIP codes identified by this data, they are very much aligned with the areas that suffered the highest toll of illness during COVID,” NJHA CEO Cathy Bennett said. “This data reinforces a critical lesson: When it comes to population health, the health of the entire state is inextricably linked to the health of our most vulnerable.

“That’s a critical reminder for public health, policymakers and the provider community, but there’s also a message for each of us on a personal and local level. Everyone can help us emerge from this pandemic stronger by volunteering their time, donating to a food pantry, contributing to a coat drive or supporting any number of worthy causes that help build up communities.”