California Leaders Tackle Inequality Amid COVID-19 Crisis: "We Are Deeply Disturbed"

Gavin Newsom speaks during a news conference  September 18, 2019 in Sacramento- Getty-H 2020
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Los Angeles County's public health director on Thursday reported an additional 25 deaths and 425 newly diagnosed positive cases, numbers that are consistent with previous days this week in the area's coronavirus fight.

Los Angeles County’s daily press briefings during the coronavirus pandemic always deliver a flurry of numbers. Officials cite data points like fatalities, positive case counts, open hospital beds, the number of people being treated in intensive care units, available ventilators, unemployment statistics, age breakdowns and so on. 

On Thursday, from the Department of Supervisors headquarters in downtown Los Angeles, there was much of the same. Public Health Director Dr. Barbara Ferrer reported an additional 25 deaths; 425 newly diagnosed positive cases; a total case count of 7,955; a total death count of 223 (causing the mortality rate to increase slightly to 2.8 percent); 155 institutional investigations that account for 716 positive cases and 51 deaths; and a total number of hospitalizations at 1,894.

Of the 25 deaths, one person who died worked in a homeless shelter, marking the first fatality from that sector. "Every day I report these numbers knowing that there are people who are grieving their loved ones," Ferrer said. "To all those mourning, we are deeply sorry."

But Thursday’s briefing was different, in that Ferrer dedicated more breath to the topic of inequality, a subject that has fallen more sharply into focus in recent weeks as the coronavirus crisis has spread to all corners of the U.S. Specifically, in cities like New York, Chicago, Detroit and New Orleans, public health officials are reporting higher mortality rates among black populations. Figures on race were first made available in California this week, both by Ferrer for L.A. County and by California Gov. Gavin Newsom for statewide numbers.

On Tuesday, Ferrer reported that of 93 deaths (or 57 percent of data), black people accounted for 17 percent of the fatalities, a high number based on the percentage of the population as a whole with 9 percent. On Thursday, though she didn’t report new figures, she did take a question on how the pandemic is affecting various demographics in the community and she replied bluntly that it’s devastating to people of color and low-income communities.

"A pandemic really surfaces many of the issues and challenges we’ve been facing for a long time as a society," said Ferrer. "It definitely exacerbates the disproportionality we see every day when we do our work here in the county. Those people are most affected by this pandemic tend to be, as a group, the people who are disproportionately earning less money, have on average more underlying health conditions, have the kinds of jobs that may not afford them all the protections they would need [such as health insurance, paid time off]." She also said Los Angeles' homeless population — a number she cited at 45,000, though it is believed to be upwards of 52,000 — is also vulnerable for a lack of access to care and because many are older with underlying health conditions.

Specifically, about black communities, Ferrer said "we are deeply disturbed that African Americans are dying at a higher rate," based on preliminary figures in the county along with data reported by other major cities across the country. She said it is in line with how other illnesses can more seriously impact the demographic compared to other ethnicities due to longstanding racism, access to adequate health care and the burden of being black in an unjust society. Ferrer added that she’s also "troubled" by information her team is receiving about testing being carried out at lower rates in less affluent parts of the county. She added, “Having less access to testing means we have a lot of work to do."

Inequality was the subject of a campaign email sent Thursday afternoon by Democratic presidential front runner Joe Biden, who said the pandemic has shined a light on inequality, lack of paid sick leave for workers, need for stronger unemployment insurance and necessity for a livable minimum wage.

"Unsurprisingly, it’s also amplifying the structural racism that is built into so much of our daily lives, our institutions, our laws, and our communities," he wrote, before citing data from The Washington Post indicating that counties with majority-black populations have coronavirus infection rates three times higher than counties with majority-white residents, and death rates nearly six times higher. "It’s unconscionable, and it shouldn’t be the case in the United States of America in the 21st century. But we know exactly why it is: Black, Latino, and Native Americans are still less likely to have health insurance. Less likely to have access to health care. More likely to have underlying conditions, like asthma and diabetes, that make them more vulnerable to this virus. And, more likely to face exposure to air pollutants that may be associated with higher COVID-19 death rates. Black and Latino Americans are also less likely to have a job they can just do from home. Meaning they’re more likely to have to choose between their health and a paycheck."

During his press briefing, California Gov. Newsom said the figures statewide don’t represent the same disparity other states are reporting, however. Health officials were able to track, based on 53 percent of positive cases and 54 percent of fatalities, a boost from Wednesday’s report, based on only 37 percent. Those figures include: Latinos accounted for 30 percent of confirmed cases, 25 percent of deaths; African Americans for 7 percent of confirmed cases, 8 percent of deaths; and Asians for 13 percent of confirmed cases, 18 percent of deaths. Newsom said information on other races would be forthcoming.

Also forthcoming? More staying at home.

Asked whether this week’s strict home-isolation orders would continue through next week, Ferrer was clear that they're not being lifted anytime soon: "We remain really dedicated to being safe, and being safe means safe at home for next few weeks to come. Everything we can do to avoid having contact with others is a really good idea."