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Coronavirus Appears Twice as Deadly for Blacks as Whites in California

By Kurtis Alexander—April 17, 2020

The racial disparities that have plagued the cruel and uneven toll of the coronavirus across parts of the nation appear to be emerging in California.

The state’s black residents are dying from COVID-19 at nearly twice the rate of white residents, according to initial figures released this week by the California Department of Public Health.

As of Tuesday, almost 100 of California’s more than 800 COVID-19 deaths were African Americans, amounting to about 12% of the total. That far outpaces the group’s representation, which is about 6% of the state population.

While the death count in California is much lower than in the country’s hardest-hit spots, such as New York, New Jersey and Michigan — and trends could change as more data is collected — the disproportionate number of casualties so far in the African American community is worrying medical experts. It’s likely reflective of longstanding socioeconomic differences that are surfacing as difficulties in getting personal protection, testing and treatment, they say.

“The pandemic happens on top of big inequities in health that already exist,” said Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, vice dean for Population Health and Health Equity at UCSF. “We also have to think about the things that have led to ways we’ve disproportionately managed this epidemic.”

The initial death rate among the state’s black population from COVID-19, computed from state figures, stands at 4.2 people per 100,000. Among white people, it’s 2.2 people per 100,000. The death rate for Asian Americans is 2.1 per 100,000. The rate for Latinos is 1.6 per 100,000.

Many parts of the country, including New York City, have seen death rates among Latinos soar, much as they have for African Americans. But California’s count has not yielded such a trend.

The Latino community’s low death rate, however, comes as the group’s caseload is much higher and more representative of its share of the population. Latinos made up about 37% of the state’s total COVID-19 caseload, as of Tuesday, while they constitute 39% of California’s population.

In San Francisco, early data suggests that Latinos may be even more susceptible to the virus. The city reported Thursday that Latinos represented 25% of its caseload while making up 15% of the population. The number of cases among black residents, meanwhile, was about 6% of cases, on par with their population representation.

San Francisco had 1,019 cases of coronavirus and 17 deaths as of Thursday afternoon. The death count is too low to tease out trends.

In Santa Clara County, Latinos were similarly over-represented. Of the county’s 69 COVID-19 fatalities, 33% were in the Latino community while the group made up 24% of the population. The low number of black residents in the county and the low number of cases make the count statistically irrelevant.

Deaths are widely believed to be a better indicator of the spread of the coronavirus than caseload because of the lack of testing. Many more people are believed to be infected than tests would indicate.

Denise Herd, associate director of the Othering and Belonging Institute at UC Berkeley, which has been monitoring the epidemic in the Bay Area, said it’s likely only a matter of time before widespread testing reveals greater disparities across minority groups in California, including the Latino population.

“They’re going to be facing some of the same environmental conditions that African Americans face,” she said. “I think the jury is still out. We still need more data.”

Read more at the San Francisco Chronicle.

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