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Coronavirus and Race: Black and Latino People Are California's Most Vulnerable

Credit…Gregory Bull/Associated Press

Good morning.

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On Monday, Gov. Gavin Newsom said the state was “a few weeks away, not months away, from making measurable and meaningful changes to our stay at home order.”

But in order to do that, he said, the state’s beaches can’t draw the kinds of crowds that amassed over the weekend.

“The only thing that will set us back is our behavior,” he said.

Mr. Newsom’s assessment came as public health officials in the Bay Area announced an extension of the nation’s first shelter-in-place orders until the end of May, but with provisions that would allow for the easing of some restrictions.

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Mr. Newsom said he’d lay out more details on how businesses may be allowed to reopen in phases today. And as of Monday, it won’t be just California, Oregon and Washington sharing best practices: Colorado and Nevada have joined the “Western States Pact.”

[Track every coronavirus case in California by county.]

Dr. Sonia Angell discusses the demographics of Covid-19

As the coronavirus spread across the country, public health experts have been closely watching who’s been infected and trying to understand why the virus is deadlier for some than others.

The trends haven’t been surprising, but they’re deeply troubling nonetheless.

In California, when the state first started gathering racial and ethnic data about cases, that at first looked like it wasn’t the case. But leaders cautioned that the data was incomplete, and sure enough, as time went on, disparities have emerged.

As of Monday, according to the available data, Latinos made up 64.9 percent of the Covid-19 deaths among patients age 18 to 49, and 43.5 percent of that overall population. In the same age group, 15.3 percent of the people who died were black, while just 6.3 percent of the overall population is black.

Recently, I talked with Dr. Sonia Angell, the state’s public health director, about what her office is watching, and how to narrow the gaps.

Here’s our conversation, edited for length and clarity:

State leaders have emphasized that they’re working to address the inequities in how the pandemic is affecting black and Latino communities. Let’s start by digging into what you’re seeing in a bit more detail. What numbers are most concerning?

Certainly, every number represents a person, so every number is something we worry about.

But we particularly worry when we see trends, which tell us something, at a systems level, is happening. So, by understanding those trends, we see an opportunity to address inequity.

It takes a while for the numbers to get big enough to get a good picture of what’s happening statistically.

What we saw is that black people had almost two times the rate in deaths than the population at large. That was really concerning, but the rest of the cases seemed to mirror the population at large.

The next thing we did to understand things better was to stratify the numbers by age. That helps us account for the fact that Latinos are a younger population than whites.

When we did that, what was emerging was an even more concerning pattern: a disproportionately high number of deaths among Latino people, as well as black people. This persisted among those 18 years or older.

What might explain the discrepancies?

Unfortunately, this is not a surprise. It’s a product of historical disadvantage, and also current issues that create disadvantages.

We have to think about how Covid-19 plays into this. The people who stay at home are not the people in essential sectors. Black and brown people are disproportionately represented in essential sectors; increased infection rates are caused by increased exposure.

[Read about who’s at greatest risk of losing work.]

But that alone doesn’t explain it. We also know there are populations that have baseline risk — like higher rates of things like obesity and asthma — that may be contributing to deaths.

It’s a perfect storm to create a disadvantage in these communities, that we need to respond to. And we are.

The governor, very early on, went out with a whole host of policies designed to level the playing field to a degree. But this data tells us we need to keep going. This data now holds us accountable.

Do you anticipate that once testing ramps up, particularly in communities with many Latino agricultural or industrial workers, the number of cases will rise and widen those discrepancies even more?

This is data coming from an outbreak. Because we know this originated in China and was brought in through travel, we would guess that it first probably moved through business travelers or those with resources for vacation.

In the past few months it has probably been moving into other communities as part of the community spread.

Once it’s in these communities, we imagine there will be more cases. Where it goes really depends on how we are as a state at being able to control Covid-19.

Not every community has it at the same level. If we are successful at limiting this spread, it might mitigate some of the social disadvantage, at least directly because of Covid-19. There will still be socioeconomic impacts from the stay-at-home orders, of course.

But Governor Newsom has lifted this up again and again: We must really amp up our testing.

Here’s what else to read

We often link to sites that limit access for nonsubscribers. We appreciate your reading Times coverage, but we also encourage you to support local news if you can.

  • How do you sign, “Don’t drink Clorox?” Sign language interpreters are newly high-profile members of the nation’s essential work force. [The New York Times]

  • A Stanford University professor’s wife recruited participants for her husband’s coronavirus antibody study by emailing a Los Altos junior high school listserv. [Buzzfeed News]

  • The Orange County Fair has officially been canceled. [The Orange County Register]

And Finally …

We’re continuing with our remembrances of those lost in the pandemic. (If you’d like to share memories of a Californian who has died, please email us at

Today’s piece, about David Werksman, was written by Nick Roberts, a student at the U.C. Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism:

For 11 years, David Werksman worked on the bomb squad at the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department. His brother once asked him how he went to work each day, knowing the danger.

“‘I get up every day, put on the uniform, strap on the gun, kiss my kids, and realize I may never see them again,’’’ Harry Werksman remembered his brother saying. “He was undoubtedly the bravest, most selfless person I’ve ever known.”

Mr. Werksman died on April 2, one of two Riverside sheriff’s deputies to die of complications from the coronavirus in one day. He was initially told he had the flu and was sent home with medication. But when his symptoms worsened, he was hospitalized and quickly intubated. He was 51.

The ocean is where Mr. Werksman found solace from the stress of his job. He began scuba diving as a youngster, and it became a lifelong passion. His dream was to retire in the Bahamas on a catamaran. “Anytime he could get to the water,” his brother said, “he was all over it.”

Mr. Werksman is survived by his wife, Kristin, and three children, Oliver, 26; Abby, 23; and Shelby, 19.

California Today goes live at 6:30 a.m. Pacific time weekdays. Tell us what you want to see: Were you forwarded this email? Sign up for California Today here and read every edition online here.

Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, graduated from U.C. Berkeley and has reported all over the state, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles — but she always wants to see more. Follow along here or on Twitter, @jillcowan.

California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from U.C. Berkeley.

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