ICYMI: The original version of this story was published in the East LA Weekly
Τhe number of COVID-19 cases in this predominantly working class Latino neighborhood surged past 2,000 this week, as health authorities warned about an apparent increase in community transmission.
The numbers for East L.A. are troubling to say the least:
• 53 new confirmed cases of coronavirus infections were reported on Tuesday by the county health department. That comes a day after Monday’s report of 98 new cases, the second highest single-day increase since the first case was reported in East LA in late March.
• A total of 2,122 cases have been reported since the pandemic began, according to Tuesday’s figures.
• East L.A had the highest number of cases of any unincorporated area in the county and more confirmed cases than any LA County city except Los Angeles, Long Beach and Pasadena
• East L.A. has one of the highest rates of infection in the county – 1.652 (per 100,000 residents).
• 51 deaths have been reported as of Monday.
Only a trickle of cases showed up in East Los Angeles at the beginning of the pandemic. According to one health expert, little effort was made in the beginning to address the pandemic among immigrant, mostly Spanish-speaking communities.
“What we started to see was that much of the news for COVID 19 was being shared in English primarily,” said Dr. Efrain Talamantes, medical director for the AltaMed Institute for Health Equity. “There wasn’t enough emphasis to make sure that this information was being communicated to trusted community partners.”
East LA case numbers began to climb immediately after the first COVID-19 testing sites opened in and around the neighborhood. The number of confirmed cases in East Los Angeles has increased steadily since mid-May, along with the number of cases in the neighboring community of Boyle Heights – which has one of the highest rates in the City of Los Angeles.
Why is the East L.A. outbreak so bad?
An easy explanation is tied to demographics: both neighborhoods have overwhelmingly majority Latino populations – almost 97% for East LA – and both suffer from the socioeconomic conditions that make the Latino population the most vulnerable to COVID-19.
Latinos are overrepresented in service industries where they are considered essential workers, and those with the lowest earning potential often live in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions.
“Decades of institutional racism have made our communities more vulnerable, so we must consider this reality in our policy solutions,” said LA County Supervisor Hilda Solis, whose 1st district includes both Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles.
The Vernon Factor
But the surge in East Los Angeles cases may also be tied directly to a number of outbreaks in the city of Vernon, particularly to a large outbreak in the Farmer John meat processing plant.
“I have a lot of patients that work there,” said Dr. Talamantes, who treats COVID-19 cases at an AltaMed clinic in Commerce. He said he early on heard from workers whose employers were not providing any protections or safety measures, nor access to testing.
Dr. Talamantes said that with five testing sites in Eastside communities, AltaMed is currently responsible for close to 10% of the testing being done in all of the county. He said these sites report a higher rate of positivity than the county average – which was about 8% on Monday.
Higher Numbers Ahead
On Monday, Los Angeles county health authorities worried that the high number of new cases reported showed an increase in community transmission – and that even higher numbers could result from ongoing civil unrest and protests related to the Black Lives Matter movement.
That concern is shared by AltaMed’s Dr, Talamantes. He said he is worried that community-based health centers such as AltaMed may not be able to handle the load of testing needed, as federal and state funding is diverted to private labs and big, chain pharmacies.
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“If we look at the patterns across the country in poor communities, in areas where they are rapidly opening the economies, there is a surge coming,” he said. “That’s what we’re seeing and we’re concerned about it.”
The doctor said that aside from looking at the numbers, authorities need to involve locally-based partners to help find ways of mitigating transmission. He said it was not enough to provide information in Spanish, but to do it in a culturally sensitive way.
“It’s really hard to tell people ‘Don't’ come in contact with family’ if they live in a one-bedroom apartment, or they live in a house with multiple families,” he said. “We have to be sensitive, because people feel disrespected if you tell them, ‘go isolate yourself in a hotel’, or ‘you can’t go home’, if that’s all they have.”
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