Public health experts and local community organizations are hoping a revamped health equity map for Southern California helps close various health gaps and bolsters community health efforts, like Orange County’s COVID-19 response. 

The map, created by the Public Health Alliance, is able to display numerous layers of information – everything ranging from percentage of homeownership to access to quality health care to neighborhood COVID vulnerabilities.

The alliance is made up of 13 public health officials from all the public health departments throughout Southern California, including the Orange County Health Care Agency.

The map’s data can also be displayed from a census-tract level all the way to the county level for Southern California. It can also now compare health metrics over time and give an area’s primary spoken language. 

Alliance members hope the updated mapping tool will help public health leaders and elected officials better direct resources to underserved communities on a host of health and social issues.

“Prior to the healthy places index, it was really difficult for us to paint a picture for elected officials … it was really hard for us to tell a complete story,” said Kimberly Saruwatari, director of public health at UC Riverside’s Health Systems.  

At Wednesday morning’s unveiling of the new map, Saruwatari said not only does the healthy places index map show things like ambulance service distribution throughout a county, but can also show drug overdose rates to help better direct intervention resources.

She said the map helps elected officials “identify types of community intervention and determine where those community interventions will be most effective.” 

It’s also key for pandemic response, Saruwatari said. 

“HPI has been integral to all our COVID-19 efforts,” she said. “So we use HPI to look at how we’re doing on distribution of vaccines. Are we getting vaccines into our communities in an equitable way?”

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Orange County’s initial vaccine rollout early last year was plagued with problems ranging from language barriers to access issues. 

OC’s Latino community faced various gaps in the county’s pandemic response, like a lack of vaccines, testing and quarantine resources.

[Read: OC’s Latino Community Remains Behind on COVID-19 Vaccines One Year Later]

Last February, concerns from local health clinic leaders and community organization representatives forced then-OC Public Health Officer Dr. Clayton Chau to hold a virtual town hall to address the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on the Latino community, and lack of vaccines. 

[Read: Orange County’s Chief Health Officer Tonight Will Discuss Efforts to Get Coronavirus Vaccines to Latino Community]

Now, community organizations say the new healthy places index map can help avoid some of those pitfalls. 

“So when we think back to when COVID started early March in 2020 – one of the big struggles that we had is that we didn’t have data around the zip codes specifically on where COVID cases were increasing, so it made it harder to respond,” said Gloria Montiel, a research scientist for the community organization Latino Health Access.

Latino Health Access, based in Santa Ana, was part of a critical effort in getting the OC Health Care Agency to break down case rates and positivity rates by zip codes. 

Using zip code-specific health data to tailor health care and public policy response to neighborhoods is something that Latino Health Excess Executive Director America Bracho has been advocating for some time, especially in places like Orange County where neighborhood needs can vary widely just by a few miles. 

Last summer, the OC Health Care Agency rolled out its own countywide health equity map. 

[Read: Could OC’s New Health Inequity Map Lead to Real Systemic Change?]

But the new Healthy Places Index map gives more detailed information and has the ability to compare neighborhoods between counties. 

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In a Tuesday phone interview, Montiel said the new health index map can help put a focus on the root causes of the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on the Latino community. 

“Any preexisting conditions, for example, they all go back to the structural disparities and structural racism that have created these conditions,” Montiel said, adding that efforts should be made to alleviate those causes.

“Our response needs to be multi-systemic.” 

At Wednesday’s unveiling of the new healthy places index map, Pastor Debra Williams also said the map shows where community organizations can target efforts to reduce vaccine hesitancy throughout her community in Riverside. 

Williams, who’s also founder and CEO of Building Resilient Communities, echoed what Montiel said about the root causes of health inequities. 

“It may be COVID that caused the African American Collaborative to get started, but it won’t be the end … Now we are saying let’s go, let’s run. What are those underlying conditions that have been in BIPOC communities for generations that have not been addressed,” she said. “Let’s figure out how we can work on the public’s health as much as possible and [the health map] is making that happen.” 

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Tracy Delaney, a founding executive director of the Public Health Alliance, said the goal of the map is to hand it over to local health clinics, community organizations, school districts, policymakers and a host of local agencies so they can better target their resources.

“Since 2018 the HPI has become a go to data tool … for various uses addressing critical needs,” like transportation and housing, Delaney said during Wednesday’s map presentation. “And of course the health equity metric that influenced COVID spending.” 

Like the alliance officials, Montiel said the pandemic has put community health inequities under a microscope. 

“It’s kind of a nationwide and hopefully worldwide reckoning that COVID-19 just put this issue of equity front and center in a way that we could no longer ignore,” Montiel said in a Tuesday phone interview. 

“The lense of COVID-19 recovery has opened up the door for community based organizations and health clinics, and the OC Health Care Agency to tackle these issues in an equitable way.” 

Spencer Custodio is the civic editor. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio.

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