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Wealthy LA areas have higher rates of coronavirus cases. Why those numbers are deceiving

Tony Barboza, Ben Poston and Angel Jennings, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LOS ANGELES -- As a potent new coronavirus continues its lethal spread across California, many of Los Angeles County's whitest and wealthiest enclaves are reporting far higher rates of infection than are poorer neighborhoods of color.

Predominantly white, affluent areas such as Hancock Park, Bel-Air, Beverly Crest and Brentwood reported some of the highest per capita rates of confirmed cases, while many working-class and majority nonwhite communities such as Bell Gardens, Watts and El Monte reported much lower rates, a Los Angeles Times analysis of county health data through Wednesday shows.

But those disparities do not mean the virus that causes COVID-19 is spreading more widely through rich neighborhoods than in poorer ones, public health officials and experts say. Rather, they are probably skewed by uneven access to testing and, in some instances, by wealthy residents who traveled internationally and had some of the earliest confirmed infections.

The trend, some experts say, bodes poorly for local efforts to control the spread of COVID-19, as it suggests a troubling disparity of testing along the lines of race, income and immigration status. They say a lack of adequate testing in lower-income areas threatens to give residents there the false and potentially deadly impression that they have less to fear from the pathogen, and hence little reason to heed physical distancing orders.

"There's a lot of misinformation and indifference in the black community," said Sadio Woods, an Inglewood resident who sought unsuccessfully to be tested for COVID-19, only to be told later by a doctor that she probably had the disease but recovered. "There's this narrative it's a rich, white man's disease. They travel. They are the ones who are spreading this disease all around to each other."

Nationally, cities with large black and Latino populations such as Chicago, New Orleans and New York have become hot spots in the spread of the coronavirus. Worried that race and income are playing a role in these outbreaks, California Sen. Kamala Harris and a group of fellow Democratic lawmakers have urged health officials to record comprehensive demographic data on those tested and treated for the disease -- information that is now almost nonexistent.

 

"This lack of information will exacerbate existing health disparities and result in the loss of lives in vulnerable communities," the lawmakers wrote in a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.

In Los Angeles County, more than 21,000 people have been tested for the coronavirus, and roughly 12% have tested positive. However, the county does not track the location of all negative tests, so it is impossible to determine whether tests are being given equally across the county.

On Wednesday, county health officials said they were "aware of geographic disparities" in testing and are now asking labs to report negative results along with positive results, "so we have a full picture of what is happening."

"Our hope is that we're paying attention to some of the areas where in fact we know there has been less testing," said Barbara Ferrer, director of the L.A. County Department of Public Health.

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