COVID-19 remains a threat in low-income areas

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By Alfredo Santana

Contributing Writer

HIGHLAND PARK — Anselmo Peña-Loza believes COVID-19 still poses a serious threat for bus riders like him. 

According to him, most passengers no longer wear facemasks, air ventilation is restricted to units with foldable windows and there is no guarantee that air conditioning filters are clean enough to catch airborne particles. 

Furthermore, the buses he boards to go to work from Highland Park to central Los Angeles often run out of the free three-ply surgical masks on the shelves the transportation agency installed at the height of the pandemic. 

Peña-Loza said he caught COVID-19 and recovered from it two years ago. But despite the end of state and county emergency mandates to use masks in public indoor settings, he thinks authorities should step up efforts to avert more respiratory infections. 

“The risk of getting sick again is real, much higher in poorly ventilated places,” said Peña-Loza in Spanish, while he waited for a Route 81 bus to arrive at the stop on Figueroa Street and York Boulevard. “The risk remains until the pandemic is over.” 

His fears may be well founded. 

Even with transmission declines recorded by the Los Angeles County’s Department of Public Health, data shows low-income communities of color continue to be disproportionally impacted by the resilient coronavirus. 

Higher rates of hospitalization and deaths among Black and Latinos “is the likely result of increased exposures to the COVID-19 virus,” combined with less access to resources needed for good health, overcrowding and poor ventilation in homes and at worksites, the county agency said.

COVID-19 hospitalizations among the two groups are twice as high compared to white residents and deaths due to the same disease are two and a half times higher for Latinos, and one and a half higher for Blacks. 

From May 16 to 23, the health agency documented 2,157 new infections, compared with 2,323 the previous week, and stressed that counts are likely less than the true number of cases due to at home antigen tests not reported or no testing.  

For the same periods, there were 190 and 225 hospitalizations respectively, with 35 deaths reported during the period, up from 20 the previous week. 

Overall lab results confirm more than 3.7 million cases in the county since the pandemic’s onset, with 36,338 deaths through May 22. 

Nonetheless, the trend of community infections continues to improve and the most recent figures offer hope for Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer, who encouraged people to stay alert and protect against possible contagion sources. 

“While COVID remains a complex public health problem that requires us to be attentive and prepared, I do have a lot of optimism about the future,” Ferrer said. “We know so much more than we did three years ago, and we should all feel empowered to take simple actions to keep COVID transmissions low.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has switched from getting community infection levels to hospital admissions, in an attempt to leave local health authorities decide how to take preventive measures as cases recede. 

According to the latest county count, 2.6 new patients with COVID-19 had been admitted at a hospital per 100,000 residents. 

The Omicron variant XBB.1.5, also nicknamed Arcturus, is currently the dominant strain in the county, accounting for 78% of sequenced samples on April 29.

Vaccine manufacturers Pfizer, Moderna and Novavax are working to develop shots targeting the new XBB strain for the fall campaign, the Wall Street Journal reported last week. 

Yet, in Los Angeles County, COVID-19 hospitalizations are two and a half times greater in neighborhoods with 30% of households living at or below the federal poverty line, compared to neighborhoods with less than 10% of poor households. 

According to the Department of Housing and Human Services, a person in California earning $14,580 or less a year is considered poor, while two people in the same household with an income of up to $19,720 fall in the same category. 

A family of three making $24,860 or less is considered poor. 

Dr. Sherill Brown, director of infection prevention at AltaMed Health Services, said recent data from clinics in Southeast Los Angeles indicate that only 6% of patients tested positive to COVID-19 out of 469 tested. 

Brown, who works at the Pico Rivera Passons Boulevard clinic, said they have not experienced a spike in any of the 28 facilities located from East Los Angeles to Long Beach and Orange County, including 11 catering health services to the elderly.

However, she advised people dependant on public transit to get the latest bivalent vaccine and carry quality facemasks, particularly if they are overweight, have asthma, diabetes, are 50 years of age and older, or have a disability. 

“It’s extremely important to be up to date with COVID-19 vaccines, especially if you are going into the public to further protect yourself in crowded or poorly ventilated settings,” Brown said. 

For people with chronic conditions who stay at home, she suggested improving ventilation by mixing in outdoor air with heating or air conditioning, weather permitting.

“I am not  saying that you should turn on the AC and the heater and leave the windows and doors open,” Brown said. You wouldn’t have the AC or heater on if the windows and doors are open. That would be wasteful.

“I also recommend changing HVAC filters at the correct intervals with the approved filters for that system.”

In addition, the federal government announced it will continue to supply medications like Paxlovid and Molnupiravir available at no cost for patients without medical insurance, while California requires health plans to pay for vaccines, testing and Paxlovid until Nov. 11. 

Francisco Torrealva, who shares a room with Peña-Loza, said health and transportation authorities should consider a plan to install hand sanitizers at the entrance and exit of buses and light trains to further curb COVID-19 infections. 

“Anti-bacterial gel should be available before and after we touch high contact surfaces like seats and handle tubes. It would help a lot,” Torrealva said. 

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