Black residents have the highest rate of COVID-19 hospitalizations among all racial and ethnic groups in Los Angeles County, new data show, a troubling disparity even as hospitalization rates for all groups have stabilized or started to decline.
The pandemic has amplified longtime inequities in the U.S. healthcare system that indicate who is most likely to die from the virus. Black residents in particular are more likely to have underlying medical conditions — such as diabetes and asthma — that place them at higher risk for COVID-19 complications.
Public health officials nationwide have tried not to blame people of color for underlying conditions by highlighting systemic racism in healthcare, including how a lack of access to insurance, income disparities and historical mistreatment have caused generations to distrust the healthcare system.
"A long history of inadequate access to the essential resources that support optimal health has resulted in Black residents across L.A. County and the country experiencing higher rates of disease that, as we know, put them at elevated risk for severe COVID illness," L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said in a recent news briefing.
"Our trend lines validate this deplorable reality, which continues to contribute to the higher rates of hospitalizations and deaths from COVID experienced by our Black residents."
On a weekly basis, for every 100,000 unvaccinated Black residents, more than 15 are hospitalized with COVID-19, higher than for both Latino and white residents, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health reported.
Vaccinated people are far less likely to require hospitalizations; among L.A. County's 5.4 million residents who are fully vaccinated, only 1,359 of them — or 0.025% — have been hospitalized with COVID-19.
But even among vaccinated people, Black residents are more likely to be hospitalized: For every 100,000 vaccinated Black residents, about five were hospitalized on a recent weekly basis, twice as many as other groups.
And while coronavirus case rates continue to decline in L.A. County, a gap among racial and ethnic groups remains. For every 100,000 unvaccinated Black and Latino residents, there are about 150 weekly coronavirus cases; by contrast, for every 100,000 unvaccinated white residents, there are about 100 weekly cases.
The latest data highlight the importance of vaccinating Black residents, especially as the county offers Pfizer booster shots to those who have already been fully inoculated.
“This pandemic is the most devastating health crisis that we have faced in our lifetimes. And one of the ways to get over the pandemic is to have more people protected with the vaccines,” Ferrer said. “It’s also the way we save a lot of lives.”
In a number of communities with low vaccination rates, public health officials are still struggling to communicate how vaccines can save people. Experts also are fighting waves of misinformation, including that vitamin supplements protect against COVID-19 and that the vaccines harm fertility or distort a person’s DNA.
Younger Black and Latino residents are among the groups with the lowest vaccination rates in Los Angeles County, and health advocates have urged that more be done to inoculate those groups.
Among L.A. County residents 12 and older, 53% of Black residents have received at least one shot, as have 62% of Latino residents. But 71% of white residents, 74% of Native American residents and 81% of Asian American residents are at least partially vaccinated.
Other areas have had a better track record of diminishing the disparities in vaccination rates. Among all residents in San Francisco, 69% of Black residents have received at least one dose of vaccine, roughly the same as the rate for white residents; roughly 80% of Asian Americans and Latinos have received at least one dose.
Vaccination rates in Alameda County, where Oakland is located, also are significantly higher among Black and Latino residents than in L.A. County: 69% of Black residents, 75% of Latino residents, 76% of white residents and 90% of Asian American residents have received at least one dose.
Some experts have noted that younger people in general are less likely to be vaccinated, believing they won't face serious consequences from COVID-19. But studies show the potential impact of coronavirus infections, particularly among Black people.
One study of Long Beach residents published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 1 in 3 people who survived COVID-19 suffered from long COVID. There were higher rates of long COVID among Black residents, people 40 or older, women and those with preexisting health conditions, according to the study, conducted by UC Davis epidemiologists and the Long Beach Department of Health and Human Services.
“Repairing the damage caused by healthcare inequities will not happen overnight, [but] we must not worsen these inequities by inaction in closing coverage gaps, which will further worsen existing disproportionality we see in cases, hospitalizations and deaths,” Ferrer said this month.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.