California Latinos contracting COVID-19 at three times rate of whites

FILE PHOTO: People wearing face masks walk along the ocean pier in Huntington Beach, California, U.S., July 23, 2020. REUTERS/Mike Blake

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) - Latinos in California are becoming ill and dying from COVID-19 at far greater rates than other groups, the state’s top health official warned on Tuesday, prompting new outreach and data collection efforts as cases surge.

Latinos make up 39% of the population in the most populous U.S. state, but account for 56% of COVID-19 infections and 46% of deaths, the California Health and Human Services secretary, Dr. Mark Ghaly, said in a conference call with reporters.

Of particular concern is the heavily Latino Central Valley agricultural region, where cases continue to soar and hospitals are becoming overwhelmed even as the rate of new infections may be slowing in the state overall, Ghaly said.

Experts said a perfect storm of workplace issues and cultural traditions in the Central Valley has led to a crush of cases that has devastated many families. Many Latinos in the Central Valley are poor, working in industries such as agriculture that have been deemed essential during the pandemic. Many employers have not reliably provided protective equipment to workers or implemented social distancing or rules requiring masks to be worn, measures essential to containing the virus, state officials say.

In addition, cultural norms that foster large family gatherings and include many multi-generational households have led to fast and deadly transmission of the virus, often to older relatives who are less able to survive.

On Tuesday, Ghaly said California would implement a new method of tracking COVID-19 as well as other infectious diseases by requiring labs to ask the ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity of those they test.

Also of concern is a high death rate for African-Americans who contract the disease, although progress has been made lowering the group’s overall infection rate, Ghaly said. African-Americans make up 6% of California’s population and account for 4% of COVID-19 infections but 8.5% of deaths, he said. Whites, who make up 37% of the population, account for 17.5% of cases and 30% of deaths, state data show.

Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Leslie Adler