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COVID-19: Experts Weigh Risks, Rewards of Reopening

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By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu Senior Editor

As Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the reopening of some non-essential businesses on Friday, experts weighed in on the way these decisions will impact public health and the economy, in a briefing by Ethnic Media Services.

On Saturday in L.A. County, hiking trails and parks were reopened one day after the county allowed selected retail businesses, including florists, bookstores and toy stores, to reopen with curbside service. Even as the county slowly starts reopening, health officials reported an additional 1,011 cases of the virus and 44 additional deaths — underscoring the difficult path forward.

Dr. Tung Nguyen, professor in the UCSF Health Division of General Internal Medicine, noted that even as social distancing measures are relaxing across the country, the situation remains “very dire.”

Dr. Tung Nguyen

“The evidence is that the pandemic is slowing down. The bad news is that some leaders are beginning to push back on these social distancing measures,” Nguyen said.

In California there have been 64,561 reported cases of COVID-19 with 2,678 deaths as of May 9. As the pandemic progresses, the disparities in impacts on minority communities have become even starker.

For the 1,352 people who died and for whom ethnicity information was available, 39% were Latinx, 29% were white, 18% were Asian, 12% were black and 1% were Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander.

But factoring in the overall population of those communities showed a staggering difference in death rates. For the Native Hawaiian community, the death rate from the virus is 89 for every 100,000 residents. For the black community, the rate is 18 deaths per 100,000 residents, compared to 15.5 for the Latinx community, 12 for Asians and nine for whites.

Nguyen noted that meat-processing plants have become a hot spot of infection, with 25% of plants currently shut down.

“Trump issued an executive order that they stay open. It’s not clear if there are any new health protections and minority workers will suffer proportionally,” he stated.

The Center for Disease Control reported that by April 27 there were 115 meat or poultry processing facilities with COVID-19 cases, including 4,913 workers diagnosed with the virus and 20 deaths.

“We have to keep making the dual point, that minorities are at the front line of this fight, whether in healthcare or food delivery and production. You can name all the essential fields and minorities staff quite a few of them,” Nguyen said.

Dr. David Hayes Bautista, director of the Center for Study of Latino Health and Culture at UCLA, shared results from his study on impacts of COVID-19 on uninsured Latinos. In California, Latinos are twice as likely as non-Latinos to lack health insurance coverage. He said because of this, the full picture of the spread of the disease is still unknown.

Dr. David Hayes Bautista

“I think they have way underestimated the rates because a lot of communities do not have access to healthcare,” Hayes Bautista said.

In terms of decisions on whether to begin relaxing some protection measures, California currently has approximately 1,100 COVID-19 cases per one million population. By contrast, New York has 15,100 cases per one million. In Michigan, where protestors have been demanding the state reopen, the case count is at 4,000 per million.

“The Liberate Michigan movement wants to get rid of all the protection measures and yet they have four times the case rate of California,” Hayes Bautista noted. “It would appear that they are not at a place in the curve where that makes sense.

“This is political pressure by those who are not as impacted to relax the protective measures.”

Melva Thompson-Robinson, director of the Center for Health Disparities Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said that early reopening will be devastating to African American communities.

Melva Thompson-Robinson

The challenge for the African American community is working in positions where they are considered essential workers, but they’re not a doctor or nurse, they’re part of the janitorial staff,” Thompson-Robinson stated. “Those that are working that are considered essential, they are often low paid with minimal health insurance coverage.”

She said that African Americans are impacted by implicit bias in healthcare, which leads to worse outcomes.

“There’s a new concept of implicit bias, where people may outwardly say ‘I’m not racist,’ but their actions treat people a little bit differently based on their biases,” she explained.

Thompson-Robinson said one positive impact has been more focus on the inequities in the healthcare system.

“I hope once we come out of this pandemic that these conversations will continue. People will realize the health of our county is only as strong as our weakest link,” she said. “If essential workers are not as healthy, then we have to have a dialogue and address these disparities that we see.”

Mayra Alvarez, president of the Children’s Partnership, a nonprofit policy and advocacy organization, said that children from immigrant families are most at risk of falling further behind.

Mayra Alvarez

“With the closure of schools, there has also been an unprecedented risk for children’s health and well-being, especially for kids who rely on schools for nutrition,” Alvarez said.

Children’s Partnership found that 36% of parents are skipping or reducing meals so that their kids don’t go hungry. More than half of California parents of children ages 0 to 5 feel uneasy about personal finances and more than a third are not confident about being able to pay for their family’s basic needs like food, housing and healthcare.

Alvarez said the findings were “disheartening.” COVID-19 is threatening the physical, mental, and emotional health of California families, but how children emerge from this crisis will be affected by whether parents or caregivers have to worry about basic expenses.

Alvarez stressed the need to increase financial resources for parents so that they can care for their children.

“Thinking about our children, their well-being, health and security are essential for all of us in the future,” she said.

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