COVID-19 has highlighted and exacerbated health disparities across various demographic groups. 

In California, the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on the Latino population, which makes up over half of the state’s cases since the beginning of the pandemic, despite making only 39 percent of the state’s population. This trend has been reported in the Bay Area too, including in NapaSonoma and San Francisco counties. 

This disparity has not been surprising to community advocates and public health experts, who point out that certain demographic groups have experienced health disparities for years. 

Economic inequalities and health disparities are intertwined. The places people live, types of jobs they work and income levels all impact health. People in lower-income neighborhoods often have less access to health care or may not be able to afford quality health care.  

San Mateo County farmworkers receive the COVID-19 vaccine at a mobile vaccination clinic in Half Moon Bay, Calif. on March 5, 2021. (Photo courtesy County of San Mateo Joint Information Center)

The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) says that a range of social, community and economic factors contribute to these disparities. 

“These factors may increase exposure or make it more difficult to take preventive measures, resulting in a higher proportion of cases relative to population proportion,” the state health department said. “Examples include work in jobs where people are more likely to be exposed or which cannot be done remotely, less ability to social distance, and living in larger households.” 

A May 2020 analysis by the Bay Area Equity Atlas, an online repository of data focused on inequality metrics in the region, found that people of color are over-represented in frontline industries, putting them at greater risk of being exposed to COVID-19. 

Disparities in underlying health conditions also increase the risk for severe disease, according to state health officials. 

San Mateo County Health’s Street & Field Medicine team works in partnership with community organization Puente to provide vaccinations in Pescadero. (Photo courtesy of Preston Merchant/San Mateo County Health)

Age is also a factor that impacts case and death rates, as the age distribution for different race/ethnic groups varies in the state, according to CDPH. Older populations have a higher risk of hospitalization and death. State data shows that the majority of cases have occurred in the 18-to-49 age group while most deaths have occurred among people who are 65 and older. 

This is evident in the white population, which makes up 20 percent of COVID-19 cases but 31 percent of deaths overall. 

“For example, there is a higher percentage of the Latino population in younger age groups and a higher percentage of the white population in older age groups. This age difference could contribute to a higher proportion of deaths for the white population relative to the proportion of cases,” according to CDPH.  

Language barriers and lack of digital access can also limit some people’s ability to access information, use prevention measures or seek medical treatment and services. 

A team from San Mateo County Health’s Street & Field Medicine vaccinates individuals experiencing homelessness at a clinic at a church in San Bruno. (Photo courtesy of Preston Merchant/San Mateo County Health)

To address these disparities, the state has focused on meeting the needs of its hardest-hit communities. For example, the state began tracking COVID-19 case rates in its hardest-hit communities compared to the general population. These rates helped determine what businesses and activities could reopen under the statewide color-coded tier system. 

As the COVID-19 vaccine became more widely available, vaccination rates have lagged in communities of color. To bridge that gap, the state allocated 40 percent of vaccines to its hardest-hit communities. 

Visit the state’s COVID-19 website for information on its health equity efforts.