April 23, 2020 

By Mark Ridley-Thomas 

Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors for the 2nd District 


The challenge that we face from the COVID-19 pandemic is truly one of enormous scale and human impact. Throughout the world, across the country, here in our own community our daily lives and the way we interact has dramatically changed. As businesses and non-essential services have shut down and we engage in social distancing, the impact of how this virus affects different communities is brought into sharper focus. What was initially reported as a public health issue all Americans faced equally, realities on the ground have begun to indicate otherwise.


Although preliminary, early numbers have shown across the country African-Americans and Latinos are at greater risk, with African American’s representing 10 percent of COVID-19 cases  in the state of California. Regrettably, we do not know more because demographic data collection efforts have only now begun to move apace.


As one of the largest providers of safety net and public services, for one of the most diverse populations in the United States, Los Angeles County has a special obligation to collect this data. For them, we must understand who are most at risk. We must know who is getting sick. We must know how and where they are being treated.  In sum, we must make sure our testing and the data collection efforts reflect the diversity of our region so we can appropriately and equitably allocate our resources to those most in need, as is the county’s mandate and mission.


History has shown us that minority health inequities have long existed across the County of Los Angeles. Research suggests that African-Americans, when compared with the majority of the population, appear to have limited access to health insurance coverage, if any at all. The same social and economic determinants that have driven health disparities for generations—such as access to food, housing, education and health services—are undoubtedly exacerbating inequitable access to prevention, testing, and treatment resources for those at risk of, or suffering from COVID-19.


In this time of unprecedented uncertainty, data—carefully measured and collected information—will guide the way. It will tell us if our observations are the exception or the rule. It will allow us to be as strategic as we can to ensure that resources are appropriately and equitably distributed to the communities most in need. And, most importantly, it will help us to save lives.


As of writing, we have increased drive-through testing to one of the most underserved areas in LA County—Willowbrook and the surrounding South LA area. This location will provide free testing to everyone who meets the clinical criteria for testing, regardless of your income, insurance availability, immigration status, or residence.  In partnership with Charles Drew University, we are also working to collect demographic data, including information on ethnicity and zip code in relation to the number of tests performed, test results, as well as hospitalization and fatality rates at this site—I hope to see modeled across LA County in all communities.


I commend the initial efforts of the Department of Public Health, and their announcement that this would become a new priority; it is an important and major step in the right direction. But in the words of Benjamin E. Mayes, “the tragedy of life doesn't lie in not reaching your goal. The tragedy lies in having no goal to reach.” Our goal must not to reflexively collect data for the sake of doing so, rather collect it with the intention to know as much as we can about how this virus affects our communities of color and put that information to work.


We will emerge from this stronger, but we cannot forget the depth of the unique challenge COVID-19 presents to each community. Because true public health can only be achieved when we achieve health equity. It’s one of the most enduring lessons that history has taught us.


Now more than ever we need to be paying close attention to history and be guided by current and complete data. 

Category: Opinion