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UTEP College of Health Sciences Collaborates on LGBTQ+ COVID-19 Texas Study

Last Updated on June 22, 2020 at 12:00 AM

Originally published June 22, 2020

By Laura L. Acosta

UTEP Communications

As a queer Latinx immigrant, William Campillo Terrazas, a pharmacy student at The University of Texas at El Paso, understands full well the unique challenges facing the LGBTQ+ population during the COVID-19 pandemic.

UTEP Associate Professor Oralia Loza, left, and Brenda Risch, Ph.D., Borderland Rainbow Center executive director, right, collaborated on a survey that examines the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Texas' LGBTQ+ population. Photo: Ivan Pierre Aguirre / UTEP Communications
UTEP Associate Professor Oralia Loza, left, and Brenda Risch, Ph.D., Borderland Rainbow Center executive director, right, collaborated on a survey that examines the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Texas' LGBTQ+ population. Photo: Ivan Pierre Aguirre / UTEP Communications

From stay-at-home orders to limited access to mental health, unemployment, and health care services, the coronavirus outbreak has compounded economic and health disparities already experienced by Texas’ LGBTQ+ population. 

That is according to the preliminary results of a first-of-its-kind, statewide survey, which found that gender diverse people and queer people of color are experiencing a number of disparities. They include higher rates of COVID-19, more difficulty accessing a variety of services, and higher rates of anxiety and depression, as well as high unemployment compared with white participants. The survey’s preliminary results are available here.

“LGBTQ+ people do face several disparities in Texas that aren’t being adequately addressed by our senators or our legislators,” said Terrazas, a coordinator at the MFactor, an HIV prevention program for gay, bisexual and queer-identified men. “I think the survey is a good tool because it’s important to bring to light the specific needs in our community.”

Led by Phillip W. Schnarrs, Ph.D., associate professor at The University of Texas at Austin’s Dell Medical School, the survey involved a statewide coalition of community and research partners, including UTEP and El Paso’s Borderland Rainbow Center (BRC), to better understand the needs, concerns and challenges of LGBTQ+ Texans and their allies during the public health crisis.  

“The purpose of the study is twofold,” said Oralia Loza, Ph.D., UTEP public health sciences associate professor in the College of Health Sciences, who collaborated with the BRC to include representation from El Paso in the survey data. “One is to understand what are the needs of the LGBTQ population in our community because it has never been assessed before, especially statewide. But also, community organizations such as the BRC can use that data to show evidence of the need to advocate for those services. Other community organizations also can use the data to generate findings that are specific to the work they do. If their focus is mental health, they can look at the mental health data and report the needs for their city.”

Preliminary Findings

Preliminary results of the survey, which launched May 4, 2020, indicate disparities across COVID-19 diagnoses, mental health, unemployment and housing, and access to health care and social services.

“There are definitely unique challenges that LGBTQ+ people are facing,” Schnarrs said in a press release. “For example, having to shelter-in-place with someone who does not accept them or even physically or emotionally abuses them for being LGBTQ+.”

To date, researchers have gathered data from 1,000 LGBTQ+ individuals and their allies, including 111 respondents from El Paso. Researchers will continue to recruit participants through July 30, 2020. The survey, which is open to adults ages 18 and older, is available here.

Participants answered questions related to preventive behaviors, employment, housing and access to mental health, health care and social services. The survey also assessed how many individuals have been tested for and diagnosed with COVID-19, and their medical and health care needs.

Early results were broken down by race and ethnicity, and gender identity.

Participants reported their gender, including transgender, non-binary, or another gender minority. They also reported all gender categories with which they identified. Overall, 18% of the sample identified as transgender or with another gender minority category.

Among the findings, the rate of COVID-19 infection among transgender and other gender diverse individuals was 2.5%, which was nearly three times higher than cisgender individuals. Nearly 11% of transgender and other gender diverse individuals reported that they had to shelter in place with someone who did not accept them. More than 70% of transgender and other gender diverse individuals had trouble accessing mental health, unemployment, and health care services during the pandemic.

Brenda Risch, Ph.D., BRC founder and executive director, said that although the loss of income and social isolation caused by COVID-19 is not specific to the LGBTQ+ population, there are certain LGBTQ+ individuals who have been impacted more by the pandemic than others.

“Since LGBT elders might be more isolated to start with than straight elders, the impact is bigger for them personally,” said Risch, who plans to use the data to tailor the BRC’s services and to apply for grant funding. “The same goes for economic suffering. Transgender people in particular have high underemployment and unemployment rates compared to the general population. And no-contact protocols may have cut them off from their main informal sources of income, like performing in bars and clubs.”

The pandemic also has disproportionately affected LGBTQ+ individuals by race and ethnicity.

According to the survey, 65% of the respondents identified as white, non-Hispanic/Latinx, and 23.3% of the sample identified as Hispanic or Latinx. More than 4% of participants had sheltered in place with someone who did not accept them. Of those, 8.1% identified as Hispanic/Latinx or as a racial minority. This was almost three times greater than the proportion of white, non-Hispanic/Latinx respondents.

Overall, respondents who identified as Hispanic/Latinx or as a racial minority were more likely to report moderate and severe symptoms of anxiety and depression related to COVID-19 compared with white, non-Hispanic/Latinx respondents. Specifically, 44.8% of respondents who identified as racial and ethnic minorities experienced moderate to severe anxiety and depression symptoms compared to less than a third of white, non-Hispanic/Latinx individuals. Almost double the number of Hispanic/Latinx and racial minority respondents reported severe symptoms.

Real Change

Researchers said the data collected will be given back to community partners to use for future planning, as well as the development and delivery of programs to support LGBTQ+ individuals and allies during the COVID-19 pandemic. Researchers plan to release the findings by individual counties later this year.

Loza, who is currently translating the survey and preliminary findings of the study into Spanish, said the results can be used in a variety of ways that can benefit the LGBTQ+ community. For example, community organizations that serve LGBTQ+ populations can use the information to provide evidence of needs and gaps in services in their communities or regions of the state. The data also can benefit researchers who are studying LGBTQ+ health and health disparities or adapting COVID-19 prevention or interventions among the LGBTQ+ community. 

Before El Paso’s shelter-at-home ordinance went into effect in late March, Terrazas had planned to host an event similar to the reality dating show “The Bachelor” at the MFactor.

Not only was the safe sex education mixer canceled, but social distancing practices initiated by the COVID-19 pandemic also made it difficult for people to access in-person testing for HIV, syphilis, and hepatitis C that the program offers.

Terrazas hopes the survey will lead to real change and better health outcomes and opportunities for LGBTQ+ people to thrive in the future.

“The survey is a great tool to identify and pinpoint the things that are needed, but we also need people (in the public health field) to take the initiative and say these are the health disparities in our community and these are the actions that we need to take to decrease them,” he said. “We’ve known that there are health disparities in the LGBTQ community for a long time, but what can Texans do to make sure those disparities are actually addressed?”