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We know certain groups are at greater risk for COVID-19 including Latinx and African Americans. Now researchers say sexual and gender minorities may also have a higher likelihood for contracting SARS-CoV-2 and potentially experiencing worse outcomes.

Northwestern psychologist Dr. Brian Mustanski has been working with the LGBTQ community for his entire career. Now, he’s leading a study funded by the National Institutes of Health.

“We’re now honing in on young gay and bisexual men and transgender women as a particular population to look at rates of infection with COVID,” he said.

It is one of the first to investigate COVID-19 exposure among young gay and bisexual men and transgender women. 

One health concern he’s particularly interested in is inflammation, which can contribute to poorer outcomes when it comes to the virus.

“Due to some of the stressors of discrimination and stigma that gay and bisexual men have higher rates of inflammation in their body,” Mustanski said. “The body can also produce a large inflammatory response in response to COVID and therefore, if your baseline level of inflammation is already high, you may be at higher risk for developing that health outcome.”

Smoking is another risk factor. Mustanski said compared to heterosexual men, gay and bisexual men are twice as likely to use cigarettes, vaping devices and marijuana.

“Smoking and vaping could put you at risk for a couple reasons,” he said. “One is you actually have the effects of smoke inhalation in your lungs that can cause lung damage. It might put you at more risk if you were to become infected with COVID.”

The researchers will rely on antibody testing as a first step in the study. From there, Mustanski said they’ll dig even deeper.

“We’re also going to be looking at whether people engaged in protective behaviors like wearing masks when they went out, whether they were able to maintain social distancing or not, and look at whether some of those protective factors actually reduced the risk of having antibodies that showed you were infected with COVID,” Mustanski said.

Northwestern is home to the world’s largest LGBTQ study center and researchers hope to continue to mine data for years to come.

To learn more about Northwestern’s SCAN study on their website.

Mustanski is the director of the institute for sexual and gender minorit health and wellbeing at Northwestern University.