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Data Show Equity Problems That Policy Must Address

Inequities in the impact of the COVID-19 crisis have come into full view.

Meanwhile, the outbreak appears to have hit a plateau. It’s evidence that social distancing measures are working. But much more will have to improve — in terms of new case numbers and the state’s capacity to contain further outbreaks — before the stay-at-home order can be lifted in a safe and responsible manner.

New Numbers Confirm Fears About Equity

This week, Colorado released data on COVID-19 infections and deaths by race and ethnicity. The numbers confirm that people of color are disproportionately harmed by the virus, following a trend other states have seen.

  • Black Coloradans make up 4.6 percent of the state population, but they account for 7.0 percent of all COVID-19 diagnoses and 7.2 percent of deaths.
  • Hispanic Coloradans account for 21.7 percent of the state population but 30.0 percent of COVID-19 cases. However, Hispanics account for just 17.2 percent of COVID-19 deaths.
  • And white non-Hispanic Coloradans make up 67.9 percent of the population but just 56.7 percent of COVID-19 cases. However, 70.2 percent of all people who died of COVID-19 were white. (These numbers were current as of April 16.)

The state also released details of outbreaks at facilities and businesses. Most outbreaks are at nursing homes and assisted living centers, with more than 600 residents and 500 staff getting sick at facilities around the state.

However, two meatpacking plants in Greeley and Fort Morgan have seen large outbreaks, sickening 120 workers. Five people have died. The plants employ mostly immigrants.

And Weld County’s jail has had eight inmates and four staff come down with the disease. One person who was incarcerated died. Advocates have been warning that jails and prisons are a dangerous breeding ground for COVID-19. Eight medically vulnerable asylum seekers were released from the ICE detention facility in Aurora, where several staff members have tested positive for the disease, after lawyers filed a complaint this week.

All these numbers point to an undeniable conclusion: COVID-19 is not an equal opportunity virus. The pandemic is revealing ongoing inequities in health outcomes and access.

The Colorado Health Institute today published a new Social Distancing Index to look at differences in the ability of people to isolate themselves and protect against infection. Because of where they live or work, some Coloradans are less able to protect themselves. Many neighborhoods where it is hardest to maintain social distancing also have low average incomes and higher proportions of people of color — evidence of systematic inequities that are having real and immediate health consequences.

The next phase of the state’s response to COVID-19 should include policies that work to reverse these inequities and keep everyone safer. We have the numbers to confirm this need and tools like the Social Distancing Index to pinpoint neighborhoods that need more help.

Is It a Plateau or a Peak?

“Flatten the Curve” has been the battle cry against the pandemic. And various graphs that chart the expansion of COVID-19 are looking decidedly flatter this week.

Graphs showing new cases and hospitalizations showed steeply climbing curves during March. Those curves have begun to level off or even plateau. Maybe the week’s best news came from Colorado hospitals, which report that COVID-19 hospitalizations are beginning to level off. Hospitals have not run out of space or equipment, and they have not had to make the wrenching choices to treat some patients and let others die, as happened in Italy and other places.

Only time will tell if the plateau is indeed a peak and the rate of infections starts to fall. But if it does, Colorado will be on its way to meeting two key decision points for loosening social distancing requirements — a sustained drop in new cases and enough hospital capacity to treat everyone.

It’s less clear how prepared Colorado is to safely manage the next phase, which will require mass testing, isolation of anyone who tests positive, and quick tracing of all their recent contacts. The state’s capacity in these areas grows every day, but the scale of the challenge is massive.

Gov. Jared Polis is still hoping to lift the statewide stay-at-home order on April 26, but he’s also preparing Coloradans for a long period of abnormal life.

“Coronavirus is going to be part of our lives. We’re going to need to learn how to deal with it,” he said at an April 15 news conference.

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