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After first being spared, rural California now being ravaged by the coronavirus

Alex Wigglesworth and Rong-Gong Lin II, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

SAN FRANCISCO -- It was once said that California's coronavirus pandemic was hitting dense urban areas the hardest.

Now, it's rural, agricultural areas that are among the most severely affected.

"The epidemic is moving from urban Latino populations to rural Latino populations," Dr. George Rutherford, epidemiologist and infectious-diseases expert at the University of California, San Francisco, said Wednesday. The risk factors are the same: low-income essential workers who live in crowded housing and must leave home to work and earn money and who may be less likely to speak up to call attention to problematic workplace safety conditions.

Earlier in the pandemic, Los Angeles County was one of the hot spots for new infections. By June, it was Imperial County. The rural, agricultural and impoverished county east of San Diego soared up the list as California's hardest hit county, in terms of new cases per 100,000 residents over the past two weeks. Imperial County hit its worst number on June 16, when there were 1,438 cases per 100,000 residents over the previous two weeks.

Now, it's clear that the virus is hitting the Central Valley the hardest. Kern County, home to Bakersfield, is now recording 1,160 cases per 100,000 residents over the past two weeks. The rate reached its highest point on Saturday, reaching 1,376 cases per 100,000 residents over the prior two weeks -- a figure more than 9 times as much as it was at the beginning of July, when the county reported 136 cases per 100,000 residents.

In other words, for the seven-day period that ended Sunday, Kern County reported 12,098 cases; just a month ago, the county was reporting only about 1,350 cases a week.

 

State officials recommend counties have a case rate of no more than 100 cases per 100,000 residents over the past two weeks. Case rates may be artificially lower due to a glitch in the state's reporting system.

The Central Valley is among the areas of the nation that federal officials are particularly worried about. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. government's top infectious diseases expert, said the big problem is the uptick in the rate at which coronavirus tests are confirming infections.

The 14-day positive test rate climbed to 24% in Kern County on Monday, more than triple the state's average of 7% on that day.

"This is a predictor of trouble ahead," Fauci said on CNN Thursday. A high rate of tests confirming infections is "a clear indication that you are getting an uptick in cases, which inevitably -- as we've seen in the Southern states -- leads to surges, and then you get hospitalizations, and then you get deaths."

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