LA County Public Health Director Reports A Rise In Cases Among Black Residents

Jul 8, 2021
Originally published on July 8, 2021 4:02 pm

Updated July 8, 2021 at 1:24 PM ET

Black residents of Los Angeles County are dealing with a rise in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. The development comes shortly after California reopened its economy and the highly contagious Delta variant became the dominant strain in the U.S.

Dr. Barbara Ferrer, LA County's public health director, tells NPR that in comparing data from two-week periods in May and June, the case incident rate for Black residents went from 39 cases per 100,000 people to 46 cases per 100,000 people. Ferrer says there was a significant but smaller increase in hospitalizations: from 8.4 hospitalizations per 100,000 Black residents to 9.3 hospitalizations per 100,000 Black residents.

For Latinx, white and Asian residents in that same time period, there were small declines in cases and hospitalizations.

"I think it's important to note that these correlate exactly with vaccination rates and again, vaccination is the most powerful tool we have," she says. "Ninety-nine percent of the people who are positive, 99 percent of the people who are hospitalized, 99.8 percent of the people who are passing away, unfortunately and tragically in LA County, are people who are unvaccinated."

Vaccination rates are lower in the Black and Latinx communities, Ferrer says, particularly younger people, many of whom are essential workers or are otherwise unable to telework.

Among the unvaccinated residents she's talked to, Ferrer says that most aren't generally against vaccines. "They just have a lot of questions about these vaccines and feel like they haven't gotten the answers yet that they're looking for," she says.

Ferrar talked to Morning Edition about the new data, the state's lifting of restrictions and vaccine misinformation. Here are excerpts of the conversation, edited for length and clarity.

How much of the disparities among county residents is about access to vaccines?

Literally in LA County you can call us up, you can fill out a form, we will come to you. ... We have pop-ups at our houses of worship, at community events, we're in our parks, our federally qualified health centers. Our independent pharmacies have had some of the biggest successes in bringing in lots and lots of people on a regular basis even as we see declining rates of people coming in to get vaccinated at many other sites. We're at shopping centers, we're at our swap meets. I mean, you just have to tell us where you want us at this point, and we'll get a team out there as quickly as possible.

California has fully reopened. Do you think the lifting of the restrictions came too soon?

I'm really glad that we're fully reopened. I want to point out that where you know you have large numbers of unvaccinated people, particularly in an indoor setting or you have large numbers of people for whom the vaccination status is unknown, it's perfectly appropriate for people to be wearing their masks in those situations.

We've seen disinformation campaigns that target Black, Latino and other communities. How much of an issue has this been?

I think this is one of our biggest issues. One of the most effective tools we've found is in fact our door knocking – not that we change people's minds necessarily but we do give them other information to look at. We also work to create a lot of trusted community leaders that also have good information that they can share.

I want to be very respectful of the fact that people are doing what they consider their own information gathering. [What] they're getting is a lot of misinformation based on something that starts out as having some truth to it. So yes, with the Pfizer vaccines and Moderna vaccines, we're using a relatively new method for developing this vaccine. That's absolutely true. What's not true is that it's dangerous.

The same thing: yes, we have vaccines and they attack a specific spike protein, but they don't attack all of our spike proteins. So, I want to acknowledge that the most effective misinformation that gets spread is misinformation that builds off of something that people are just learning about and exaggerates it or misrepresents it. And that's exactly what's happened here.

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LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Black residents of Los Angeles County are dealing with a rise in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. It's a worrying development shortly after California reopened its economy and the highly contagious delta variant becomes the dominant strain in the U.S. I spoke with Dr. Barbara Ferrer, LA County's public health director, about the problem and how LA is dealing with it.

BARBARA FERRER: We can acknowledge that, certainly, in LA County, I think, across much of the country, we have lower vaccination rates in some communities. When compared to others in LA County, it's our Black and Latinx communities that have lower rates, particularly focused on younger people, who are, in many cases, still our essential workers, still not teleworking. And this really represents a lack of confidence in the vaccines. Most of the people I talked to who haven't been vaccinated yet, they're not anti-vaxxers. They just have a lot of questions about these vaccines and feel like they haven't gotten the answers yet that they're looking for.

FADEL: You mentioned that there's a lack of confidence in Black and Latino communities. But we're seeing those numbers particularly high when it comes to infections and hospitalization rates among the Black community. How does this compare to whites, Asians, Latinos?

FERRER: We looked at what was going on on May 22 and then, again, what was going on on about June 20. The only group in LA County that saw an increase in both cases in hospitalizations in that one month was among our Black residents. They went from a case incident rate of 39 cases per 100,000 people to 46 cases per 100,000 people, and a significant but smaller increase in hospitalizations from 8.4 hospitalizations per 100,000 Black residents to 9.3 hospitalizations per 100,000 residents. For Latinx, white and Asian residents at that - in that same time period, they actually saw small declines. And as a matter of fact, the declines have completely disappeared now for Black and Latinx residents and...

FADEL: Wow.

FERRER: ...Sliding even among some white residents. And the only place we're still seeing no increases is among our Asian population. I think it's important to note that these correlate exactly with vaccination rates. And, you know, again, vaccination is the most powerful tool we have. Ninety-nine percent of the people who are positive, 99% of the people who are hospitalized, 99.8% of the people who are passing away unfortunately and tragically in LA County are people who are unvaccinated.

FADEL: Now, how much of this is about access?

FERRER: Literally in LA County, you can call us up. You can fill out a form. We will come to you if you're at a site where there's, you know, anywhere around 10 people who may be interested in getting vaccinated. We have pop-ups at our houses of worship, the community events. We're in our parks, our federally qualified health centers. Our independent pharmacies have had some of the biggest successes in bringing in lots and lots of people on a regular basis, even as we see declining rates of people coming in to get vaccinated at many other sites. You know, we're at shopping centers. We're at our swap meets. I mean, you know, you just have to tell us where you want us at this point. And we'll get a team out there as quickly as possible.

FADEL: Now, you mentioned California's fully reopened. Do you think the lifting of the restrictions came too soon?

FERRER: I'm really glad that we're fully reopened. I want to point out that where you know you have large numbers of unvaccinated people, particularly in an indoor setting - or you have large numbers of people for whom the vaccination status is unknown, it's perfectly appropriate for people to be wearing their masks in those situations.

FADEL: I want to go to disinformation campaigns. We've seen disinformation campaigns that target specifically Black communities, Latino communities and other communities as well. How much of an issue has this been?

FERRER: I think this is one of our biggest issues. I - you know, one of the most effective tools we found is, in fact, you know, sort of our door-knocking. Not that we change people's minds, necessarily, but we do give them other information to look at. We also work to create a lot of trusted community leaders that also have good information that they can share. I want to be very respectful of the fact that people are doing what they consider their own information gathering.

FADEL: Right.

FERRER: What they're getting is a lot of misinformation based on something that starts out having some truth to it. So yes, with the Pfizer vaccines and the Moderna vaccines, we're using a relatively new method for developing this vaccine. That's absolutely true. What's not true is that it's dangerous. The same thing - yes, we have vaccines. And they attack a specific spike protein. But they don't attack all of our spike proteins. So...

FADEL: Right.

FERRER: ...I want to acknowledge that the most effective misinformation that gets spread is misinformation that builds off of something that people are just learning about and exaggerates it or misrepresents it. And that's exactly what's happened here.

FADEL: Dr. Barbara Ferrer is the public health director for Los Angeles County. Thank you for joining us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.