World Events

Some counties failing California’s COVID-19 health equity metric

A large swath of Southern California is failing to meet a new state health equity metric that ensures counties are helping poor communities of color most disproportionately affected by the coronavirus, creating new barriers to further reopening.

At least 12 counties — including four in Southern California — aren’t meeting the new metric, which is designed to ensure that test positivity rates in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods don’t significantly exceed a county’s overall rate. It measures the seven-day average positivity rate of a county’s lowest quartile based on the California Healthy Places index against the infection rate countywide.

“We all know that low-income Latino, Black and Pacific Islander Californians have been the hardest hit in this pandemic,” acting state health officer Dr. Erica Pan said during a news briefing this week.

“Our goal is to reduce disease transmission in all communities, especially those most at risk.”

Data provided from the California Department of Public Health show several counties, including Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego, have an excessive gap.

And every disparity has the potential to place the areas in two different tiers under the state’s latest four-tiered, color-coded reopening blueprint.

A county must meet a tier’s threshold for coronavirus case counts by population size, in addition to the rate of positive tests. If requirements for only one of those metrics is met, stricter guidelines apply. And if a county’s overall positivity rate differs significantly from its most disadvantaged neighborhoods, it could be held back from reopening.

For example, Orange County has a seven-day positivity average of 3.2%, a number that aligns with Tier 3 — which allows for a wider reopening of the economic sector. But in the county’s lowest quartile, the positivity number is 6.6%, which requires the county remain in Tier 2.

The numbers were published Tuesday and pertain to county data from the previous week.

Other counties failing to meet the new health equity metric include Contra Costa, Fresno, San Francisco, San Joaquin, San Mateo, Santa Barbara, Shasta and Sonoma. Data are currently unavailable for a handful of other counties.

No county has yet to be held back from advancing through the reopening tiers due solely to the health equity metric. But the requirement will force some counties to deploy more resources to their hardest-hit communities.

San Diego County recently contracted with multiple nonprofits that work with at-risk groups and has expanded testing in communities with an increased number of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths.

“Even though we’ve done all of those things, and we will continue to do those, we will always search out more opportunities to try and address the equity issues and try and help those communities who are most impacted,” County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher said Wednesday.

In Los Angeles County, officials said Wednesday that the equity metric was not adversely affecting the county.

“L.A. County has one of the lowest equity measures,” Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said. “What is standing in our way to advancing to a higher tier — the red tier — is that we continue to see more than the average of 700 to 800 new cases a day.”

Coronavirus cases continue to rise throughout the state, and while health experts say it’s too early to label the uptick a surge, the increase may keep some areas from progressing further in the state’s reopening plan. Already, two counties were sent backward on the tiered system.

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