In addition, Bibbins-Domingo said, the prolonged shutdown of medical offices in the early months of the pandemic — and with them non-urgent surgeries and routine medical care — likely accelerated death among people with those chronic conditions.
“Shutdowns always come at a cost,” she said. “It is our most marginalized communities that experience the cost of a shutdown.”
According to state Department of Public Health data, deaths in California attributed to diabetes rose 12% from March through July when compared with the average for the same period over the past three years. In addition, deaths attributed to Alzheimer’s disease rose 11%.
“Dementia is also a disease where we have racial, ethnic minorities already at greater risk,” said Andrea Polonijo, a medical sociologist at the UC Riverside. “Now that we have the pandemic, they’re more socially isolated. Social isolation we know can cause deeper cognitive decline.”
It’s hard to determine whether a death is due to COVID-19 if the victim never sought medical care, said Jeffrey Reynoso, executive director of the nonprofit Latino Coalition for a Healthy California. Latinos in California are less likely to have health insurance, he said. They may face language barriers if their medical provider — or contact tracer — does not speak Spanish. Latino immigrants working in the U.S. without authorization may hesitate to visit the doctor.
“Immigration is definitely a driver in creating a fear and a mistrust of systems, and that includes our health care system,” Reynoso said.
Polonijo said the fact that Latinos make up the bulk of the excess deaths correlates with their dominant role in farming, meat processing, manufacturing and food service, jobs all deemed essential during the pandemic.
“This population is also more likely to live in more crowded conditions,” she said. “So not only are they exposed at work, but they are bringing disease home and with it the possibility of spreading it to their family, bringing it to the community.”
Bibbins-Domingo noted that, while a major portion of COVID deaths overall have occurred among seniors and nursing home residents, a disproportionate number of the state’s excess deaths are of working-age adults.
“The excess deaths that we’re seeing in communities of color and in low-income communities are deaths that are occurring at younger ages,” she said. “These are deaths that are occurring in these ages from 20 to 60, generally speaking — the ages when people would be out working.”
Kathy Ko Chin, president of the Oakland-based Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum, said Asian Americans also tend to be overrepresented in essential worker occupations, noting that a large proportion of the state’s nurses are Filipino. In addition, she said, government officials have not done enough to translate COVID educational materials into the many languages spoken by California’s Asian Americans. The Trump administration’s rhetoric on immigration during the past four years, she added, has had a “chilling effect” that has kept many foreign-born Asian Americans from visiting a doctor.
“People were really, really scared,” Chin said.
Counties in Southern California and the largely rural Central Valley — places with a high proportion of Latino residents — tended to have high rates of excess deaths from March to July. Among counties with at least 100,000 people, Kings County, an arid expanse north of Los Angeles that is home to industrial-scale agriculture, had the highest rate of excess deaths per capita.
Officials at the Kings County Department of Public Health did not return a message seeking comment.
Bibbins-Domingo and others said it is important for state and county health officials to take a hard look at their excess death numbers. Excess deaths matter, she said, because they expose shortcomings in health care delivery. In addition, local and state responses to COVID-19 are grounded in data; if that data is inaccurate, the responses may be misguided.
“Deaths are important because they also help us to understand how much severe COVID is there in the community that we have to worry about,” Bibbins-Domingo said. “I think when we undercount that, we both fly blind for the overall pandemic management, and we might fly particularly blind in understanding the impact of the pandemic in particular communities.”
Phillip Reese is a data reporting specialist and an assistant professor of journalism at California State University, Sacramento.
This KHN story first published on California Healthline, a service of the California Health Care Foundation.
Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.