For months, epidemiologists and social scientists warned that California’s Latino labor force, an important driver of the state’s economy, was one of the groups most at risk in the pandemic. Working in essential jobs that are inherently unsafe and allow for only sporadic distancing or masking, Latino men and women have long been predicted to both contract and spread COVID-19 at worrisome rates.
Now, enough data exists to draw meaningful conclusions. And it is becoming apparent that coronavirus researchers’ deepest concerns not only were justified, but may even have understated the scope of the issue.
A recent report by the University of California, Los Angeles’ Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture brings that truth home in gripping fashion. Latino workers in three broad working-age populations (18-34, 35-49 and 50-69) are becoming infected at rates that skyrocketed through the summer, and over a three-month period from May 11 to Aug. 11, all three age groups experienced a nearly five-fold increase in death rates.
“COVID-19 associated deaths are burning their way through the entire Latino working-age population,” wrote the study’s authors, David Hayes-Bautista and Paul Hsu, of UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health. Where early concern among the Latino community was focused on its elderly population, the study’s findings make it clear that labor-force families are being ravaged by the disease.
In Los Angeles County, a push to make testing more widely available in lower-income neighborhoods appears to have contributed to a decline in rates of infection in both the Latino and Black communities.
The state’s broader numbers bear out the case. According to the California Department of Public Health, Latinos comprise 38.9 percent of the state’s population overall, yet have accounted for 60.8 percent of its infections and 48.6 percent of its COVID-related deaths as of Sept. 12. But it’s in the working-age groups that the statistics are truly eye-popping.
Among Californians aged 18-34, Latinos have accounted for 69 percent of COVID-19 deaths despite comprising only 45 percent of the population. They make up 41.5 percent of the state’s population in the 35-49 age group, yet account for 77 percent of its COVID-associated deaths. And in the older cohort, ages 50-64, Latinos make up 32.2 percent of the population, but account for 67.4 percent of its COVID deaths.
As Hayes-Bautista and Hsu noted, that last age group (which they expanded to 50-69 for their study) includes Latino workers who are in their peak earning years. But it’s the type of labor they perform (the authors call them “unsung essential workers”) that is really fueling the surge in infections and deaths.
“Different from the high-profile essential workers such as physicians, nurses, first responders, etc., the unsung essential workers are farmworkers who feed California, truck drivers who transport the state’s goods, meat and vegetable packers, the grocery industry’s shelf-stockers,” and those in jobs such as cleaning, construction and nursing-home support staff, the authors wrote. In so many of those jobs, workers may be in tight spaces near one another, exposed to other potential carriers of the virus and/or provided with minimal safety equipment.
Crowded housing conditions, common among farmworkers and in many Latino neighborhoods where generations of families may live together, also foster the spread of the virus. But it’s impossible to brush aside the first reality: Many Latinos in California work at jobs that simply cannot be performed at home. They must go to their work, often interacting with dozens or scores of other people each day, in order to earn their wage.
The UCLA study spells out the toll that reality is taking. In the survey’s three-month coverage period, its authors found that the COVID-19 death rate among Latinos age 18-34, while not a large figure overall, nevertheless shot up 473 percent. Virus-associated deaths in the 35-49 age group went up 386 percent, and in the 50-69 bracket, they rose 471 percent.
In many respects, the virus continues to follow the path of economic inequity. White residents make up 36.6 percent of California’s population but account for only 16.9 percent of the state’s cases of COVID-19. Researchers say that’s partly because many whites work in office jobs that can be performed at home during the pandemic, allowing them to shelter safely, and in some measure because many of them live in single-family homes, in neighborhoods where early testing for the virus was available and where the population tends to be less dense.
Across the country, labor-intensive industries such as farming have been hit hard, and that by definition takes in large swaths of Latino workers and families. In addition to the possibility that underlying, untreated health issues among these populations may be worsened by the virus, there is also a fear among some workers that the process of getting tested might expose their personal information, including immigration status, to officials.
And the entire notion of health care has to be taken into account. For some Latino workers, their employers provide little or nothing in the way of health insurance. For others, the cost of actually using their insurance is prohibitive. The cost of ignoring symptoms or failing to be tested, on the other hand, is now being seen.
The stakes are enormous. Beyond the terrible human toll the virus is taking among California Latinos, the state faces a potential labor loss in precious business sectors. The agriculture industry alone contributes $50 billion annually in cash receipts to the state’s economy.
“Anything that threatens the stability of our economy, like COVID-19’s inroads into the working-age population, needs to be taken seriously,” Hayes-Bautista said in a statementaccompanying the release of UCLA’s study. “Now the virus is falling on the working-age population, and the young Latino population is disproportionately represented in this demographic.”
In Los Angeles County, a push to make testing more widely available in lower-income neighborhoods, coupled with rules mandating that protective equipment be worn in essential and high-risk settings, appears to have contributed to a decline in rates of infection in both the Latino and Black communities. It’s a tall order to develop something like that on a statewide basis – but it may be one of the only ways to control the ravages of COVID-19 among California Latinos.
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