Although Orange County’s countywide coronavirus case rates have dropped to allow it open more businesses, the county will soon be measured by state health officials on another metric aimed at addressing virus disparities in low-income, Latino neighborhoods.
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“Nearly 60 percent of our cases in California have been Latinos … nearly 50 percent of the deaths are Latinos, yet they make up just shy of 40 percent of California’s population,” said Dr. Mark Ghaly, secretary of the state Health and Human Services Agency, at a Thursday news conference.
That trend is also seen in Orange County.
Latinos represent over 46 percent of confirmed virus cases, while making up about 35 percent of the county’s population, according to the county Health Care Agency. The Latino community also endured 44 percent of the 1,069 deaths.
“So again, a disease that really knows no bounds and really has an impunity and higher infection rates among some of our communities of color across the state,” Ghaly said.
Numerous public health experts interviewed by Voice of OC since the pandemic began have attributed the virus disparity to lack of access to health care and information early on, coupled with overcrowded housing and the inability to work from home.
Although state officials haven’t yet released specifics on what will be expected of Orange County and other counties across the state, Ghaly did say testing is an area that will be looked at.
“For example considering a comparison of test positivity in some of the higher income communities in the county versus lower income communities,” Ghaly said.
“This may require increasing testing in some of the lower income communities to more than where it is today and working to bring culturally competent contact tracing and isolation at levels we don’t have today,” he said.
The new metrics are expected to be rolled out by early next week.
America Bracho, CEO of the Santa Ana-based nonprofit Latino Health Access, said she likes the state’s approach, but state officials should look at housing, health care, job opportunities and a host of other factors in measuring equality.
“Addressing inequity is not just having access to testing, it’s having the access to prevention and equity is having the opportunity of not being homeless in a month,” Bracho said in a Thursday phone interview.
“So when you are mentioning equity, you better be talking about all equity and just not testing.”
A couple months ago, the county Health Care Agency contracted Latino Health Access, to get testing, contact tracing and quarantine efforts into the hardest hit neighborhoods.
The nonprofit was also able to provide Spanish translation services and other general information about the pandemic through its 40 community health workers — promotores — across the neighborhoods, which is where they also live.
At a Thursday news conference, OC health officer Dr. Clayton Chau said positivity rates have fallen from roughly 20 percent in the hardest hit neighborhoods of Anaheim and Santa Ana to 10 percent or under.
“I’m happy to report that we have seen a drop in the positivity rate,” Chau said. “Some of the drop is very dramatic.”
West Anaheim’s positivity rate, which was as high as 18 percent a few weeks ago, is now 8.3, while Central Anaheim’s positivity rate is just over 10 percent.
Santa Ana neighborhoods also follow the same trend, with neighborhood positivity rate ranging from seven to just over 10 percent.
The countywide rate is 4.2 percent.
Bracho said the school superintendents in Anaheim and Santa Ana pushed the county Health Care Agency to break down positivity rates by zip codes.
“The fact that this zip code data is on the website. I think we are also moving the needle on transparency and that makes me very proud,” Bracho said.
“When they saw the county data and the whole conversation about the county moving from purple to red, the superintendents said we’re not going to make decisions with aggregate data. I was jumping, I was so happy,” Bracho said.
“The leadership at the school districts in both cities are super clear — they are not risking their kids or staff. That is not happening on their watch,” she said, adding the districts will eventually open, but school officials want concrete plans and a further drop in case rates.
On Tuesday, OC moved into Tier Two, also known as the Purple Tier. The new tier allows churches, gyms, movie theaters, restaurants and other businesses to resume indoor operations, but they have to limit the number of people inside at one time.
Chau also said he started speaking with state public health officials about the new health equality metrics a couple weeks ago, but doesn’t know exactly what they’re looking to measure.
“We’re getting ready to release a section on our webpage specifically on health equity in Orange County on COVID-19,” Chau said. “We will do more. We are already planning on another initiative that we want to move into the community as well.”
Chau said that initiative could be rolled out next week.
Bracho previously told Voice of OC the nonprofit teamed up with various school districts in working class neighborhoods to create a “health ambassador” program, which is aimed at spreading more information about the virus and available resources throughout the community.
Since the pandemic began in March, the virus has killed 1,069 OC residents out of 50,471 confirmed cases, with four new deaths reported Thursday, according to the county Health Care Agency.
For context, Orange County has averaged around 20,000 deaths a year since 2016, according to state health data. According to those same statistics, the flu kills about 543 OC residents annually.
Anaheim and Santa Ana, while making up roughly 21 percent of OC’s population, have 36 percent of the total cases and 45 percent of deaths.
Hospitalizations remain plateaued with 239 people hospitalized from the virus, including 64 in intensive care units.
Anaheim and Santa Ana have 45 percent of the virus deaths.
Nearly 717,000 tests have been conducted throughout the county, which is home to roughly 3.2 million people.
Bracho was part of an early push in March and April to get specific zip code data, which eventually led to positivity rates by zip codes to be published. Before that, county health officials would publish countywide data about virus cases and deaths — there was nothing specific to cities or zip codes.
“We are working this issue in a way that we are visible. And we are resisting to be invisible,” Bracho said.
“So when the whole county, County of Orange is out of the woods and we went to red … our first response is the county is the county and the zip codes are the zip codes. We are not going to accept, at this point in the game, to go back to aggregate data. So we had a conversation with the county public health authorities — they are on board.”
Here’s the latest on the virus numbers across Orange County from county data: