COVID in East LA: A year of anger, fear - and now hope

From testing access, to cases, deaths and vaccine access, the areas in and around East Los Angeles have been hit hard by the pandemic. But, officials and community members are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
EAST LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- It has been about a year since Los Angeles County went into lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I remember like it was yesterday, it was a ghost town driving through East LA," said Lourdes Olivares, the Chief Operating Officer for Via Care Community Health Center in East Los Angeles.

"You always had a knot in your throat coming to work every day, you know, every day you were learning about someone losing someone to COVID," she said.

The East LA community and the surrounding areas have been particularly hard hit by coronavirus, whether it was a lack of access to testing, rising cases and deaths, and now vaccine access.

State Senator Maria Elena Durazo said these problems are not new.

"It's not something that happened just because of the pandemic. They were there deep in our community prior to the pandemic. So the system is set up in such a way to exclude and to discriminate against whole parts of our community," Durazo said.

COVID-19 disparities from the beginning

Initially, case numbers in the South and East LA communities didn't seem high.

According to data from March 20 of last year, many of the high case rates were in affluent areas of Los Angeles like Brentwood, Pacific Palisades, Beverly Hills and Westwood.

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But LA County testing rates by community revealed disparities in how many people were being tested.

"Testing was definitely one of the biggest challenges, getting a hold of test kits to roll that out," Olivares said.

For example, as of data from April 30, shortly after the county released the testing data, communities like county-defined Unincorporated East LA, Boyle Heights and the city of Bell all had testing rates of between 600 and 700 people tested per 100,000 people.

But, more affluent communities like Brentwood, Beverly Hills, Bel Air and Malibu all had testing rates between about 1,700 and 5,400 people tested per 100,000 people.

From her constituents in the Boyle Heights and East LA areas, Durazo said she felt a lot of "legitimate anger of being excluded, again."

"Why?" she asked. "We deserve it just like everybody else, we put into the system like everybody else."

Part of the problem, according to Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council Vice President Wendy Castro, was that the resources weren't tailored to her working-class community. She said some of the first testing sites were only open during working hours when many of those working-class community members could not go get a test.

"So, I think there's definitely solutions that try to come into neighborhoods and communities like Boyle Heights. But often times, they're not coming from individuals who know the region," Castro said.

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Anxiety and fear of the unknown

The testing gaps closed slightly over time, and Olivares attributes her organization's ability to help people get tested to the trust that Via Care has built in the community.

"The majority of our staff is bilingual, fully bilingual, to make sure that we meet the needs of the community here in East LA, we were able to utilize the trust that they have in our staff to do the phone banking, call them, reach them out, reconnect them to our doctors, to our nurses, to make sure that they're continuing to stay in touch with us," Olivares said.

But the smaller gap in testing access then revealed cases in East LA and the surrounding communities were among the highest in the county.

"Again and again, whenever there's anything that hits our country hard, we look at wars, we look at this pandemic, we look at the disproportion in education. The disproportion in health, you know, health access, it's always the BIPOC communities that suffer the most," said Castro, referring to communities that are majority Black, Indigenous or people of color.

As of data from May 31, East LA had one of the highest case rates in the county, at 877 cases per 100,000 people. Boyle Heights was even higher at 930 cases per 100,000 people.

That's more than three times the case rates in communities like Malibu and Brentwood, which had less than 300 cases per 100,000 people.

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By the middle of January, when deaths were at their peak, in both East LA and Boyle Heights, about one in 600 people had died, ranking those communities in the top 20% of death rates across LA county areas.

Throughout the year, Olivares, Durazo and Castro all noted fear, anxiety and uncertainty pulsing through their communities.

"It's anxiety and fear of the unknown, because we don't know what's going to happen next," Castro said. "Who of our family members or friends are going to unfortunately pass away next?"

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Once the vaccine rolled out in LA county, data showed areas in and around East Los Angeles had lower vaccination rates, even among those 65 and older.

As of data released Feb. 26, Unincorporated East LA and Boyle Heights had around 11% of their over 18 populations vaccinated and about 45% of their over 65 populations vaccinated. But in more affluent areas of Brentwood, Bel Air and Pacific Palisades, vaccination rates were close to double or triple those in and around East Los Angeles for both populations.

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Hope for the future beyond the COVID-19 pandemic

Officials have now started opening more vaccine sites in these disadvantaged areas and are allocating more vaccine doses to communities falling in the lowest quarter of the state's Healthy Places Index, a measurement made up of many different factors such as health care access, income and education.

Olivares from Via Care said with more vaccine resources, she feels excited.

"As resources became more readily available to Via Care, you had a feeling of there's light at the end of the tunnel," she said. "We're slowly going to get there."

But, she also said she would have liked to get more resources sooner.

Also important, said Durazo, is the work of community organizations to get the right information out and help people who may not have transportation to a clinic or childcare.

It's something that Castro strongly believes in.

"It's just up to individuals like myself that have access to the information, to encourage our elderly, to encourage our neighbors and just come out," she said.

Castro said she hopes the lives lost because of the disparities during the pandemic weren't for nothing. She said she sees more of an awareness to the problems of communities of color and hopes something is done differently in the future.

"It's almost enraging, to see that something this big had to happen in order for America to finally wake up and see the disparities that BIPOC individuals are facing across the board. And I hope that it's not in vain," she said.

State Senator Durazo hopes these disparities are addressed beyond the pandemic.

"How do we look ahead? How do we make sure that we're going to repurpose jobs that need to be repurposed with good salaries? How do we make sure people have access to health care past the pandemic? So, we've got to think now and then the future at the same time," she said.

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