Los Angeles County makes continued progress against COVID-19 but virus still hits communities of color hardest

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Los Angeles County continues to see steady progress in the fight against COVID-19 but the virus is still hitting communities of color the hardest, health officials said Wednesday.

Death and case rates have been falling among all racial groups but Latino, Black and Pacific Islander residents continue to see the highest of these rates. The county remains on the state’s monitoring list because of a case rate that still hasn’t fallen below 100 cases per 100,000 people — the level required by state health officials to reopen parts of the economy that have been shuttered for months.

L.A. already meets most of the criteria required by the state to reopen.

But Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Wednesday that California will be drafting a new set of standards for counties to reopen. He didn’t specify whether the new criteria, to be released next week, will be more or less strict.

A total of 225,827 cases of the virus have been reported in L.A. County and 5,392 patients have died, according to the Department of Public Health. That includes another 61 deaths and 1,956 cases confirmed Wednesday including 100 cases from the state’s backlog, Health Director Barbara Ferrer said.

The county has opened more testing centers in neighborhoods such as Boyle Heights, Azusa and other areas deemed higher risk due to infection rates and demographics. This, along with more health inspections of workplaces, was credited by health officials Wednesday with bringing down case rates among Black and brown residents and communities with higher rates of poverty.

Public officials and health experts have widely attributed the higher mortality and infection rates among some communities to larger numbers of people within these groups working in essential industries — sometimes in low-wage jobs with few protections.

While the case rate remains too high for L.A. to reopen, it fell considerably this month. Over a 10-day period, it went from 335 cases per 100,000 to 245 cases per 100,000 this week, according to Ferrer.

“In just a space of 10 days, that’s quite decent progress for us to be making,” Ferrer said. “But until our rate gets at or below 100 cases… we will stay on the state’s monitoring list for counties.”

The case rate for Latinos spiked to 194 cases per 100,000 people on July 21, when it remained around 50 cases or less per 100,000 people for white and Asian residents, according to county data. For Black residents, the case rate was more than 50 but less than 100 cases per 100,000 people throughout July.

But case rates for Latino and Black residents declined this month along with other racial groups.

As of Aug. 9, the most recent data available, the case rate for Latino residents stood at just 91 cases per 100,000 people — less than half what it was about three weeks earlier. For Black residents, the case rate was 38 cases per 100,000.

Those steep drops were made in less than a month but the case rates remain much higher than the rate of 28 cases per 100,000 people for white residents — more than three times the current rate for Latinos. Health officials have attributed the disparities in the virus’ impact on different racial groups to the higher number of Black and brown residents working in essential jobs.

Communities with the highest levels of poverty also continue to hold the highest case and death rates, health officials said.

“People living in the most under-resourced areas of the county have a case rate that is more than double that of people living in areas with the lowest level of poverty,” Ferrer said.

Despite the overall decline, hospitalization and death rates are still highest among communities of color, according to county data. When case and death rates surged last month, these rates climbed the highest for the Latino community.

“Latino residents are dying at rates far higher than other groups,” Ferrer said. “One factor that contributed to this inequity that we saw play out over time but became super pronounced during the month of July, is that our Latino… and Black residents are most likely to have been working in essential industries.”

Communities with the highest rates of poverty have also seen higher infection and mortality rates, which health officials have also attributed to higher numbers of people working in essential industries where they are more at risk of contracting the virus.

When the data for race and ethnicity is broken down further, Pacific Islander residents see the highest mortality, case and hospitalization rates. This group has a mortality rate of 92 deaths per 100,000 compared to 74 for Latinos, who have the second-highest rate, followed by 56 for Black residents, 45 for Native American/Alaskan, 38 for Asian and 27 for white residents.

With hospitalization and case rates dipping in recent weeks, there has been a slight “narrowing of the gap” between mortality and case rates among different racial groups, Ferrer said.

Meanwhile, Ferrer said health officials are currently focused on trying to get the overall case rate down to less than 200,000 cases per 100,000 people in order to join the state’s waiver program for classroom instruction.

“That’s our number one priority right now — get our rates down so that we can, in fact, start running that waiver program,” Ferrer said.

L.A. Unified School District students will return to school this week while still restricted to online classes and so-called distance learning.

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