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New health equity metric will help decide counties’ tier in pandemic tracking system

Starting next week, Orange County and others around California will have to show they’re paying close attention to neighborhoods that have been hit harder than others by the coronavirus pandemic.

That’s the goal of the state Department of Public Health’s new health equity metric, a third test that will decide in which of the pandemic tracking system’s four tiers a county falls into – and therefore which business and public sectors can reopen.

The new measure, announced Wednesday, Sept. 30, will be checked alongside two existing metrics – rates of new cases and shares of tests that come back positive – which give state and county health officials a sense of the virus’s speed and spread.

The new metric will be included in the state’s next weekly tier update on Tuesday, Oct. 6.

To find California neighborhoods that are most likely to be disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and its economic consequences, the state health department will use the California Healthy Places Index, which considers socioeconomic hurdles such as race and ethnicity, income and access to health care, and expresses them as a score.

Going forward, the test positivity rate among a county’s lowest-scoring census tracts – largely low-income neighborhoods where many can’t work from home – have to be nearly in-line with the county’s overall positivity to drop to less restrictive tiers.

Counties also must submit a plan that defines its most hardest-hit communities, calculates the percentage of COVID-19 cases among those communities and, by Oct. 13, share its plan to target the neighborhoods with more testing, contact tracing and outreach, among other strategies, to thwart the coronavirus.

The state health department notes that census tracts that are home to about a quarter of Californians account for 40% of COVID-19 cases.

The health equity metric has been in the works for more than a month. The idea was first announced in late August, when the four-tier, color-coded system replaced the old county monitoring list.

In Orange County, health officials said they won’t know how its health equity score stacks up against other counties, and the state as a whole, until the new metric is included the state’s next weekly tier update.

“Orange County is in a good position to really address the health equity metrics. But the truth and reality is we won’t know until the state gives us county baseline data,” said Dr. Margaret Bredehoft, deputy agency director of the Health Care Agency’s Public Health Services during a news conference on Thursday.

County leaders pointed to existing programs and a partnership with the nonprofit Latino Health Access that are already working to tamp down the coronavirus in some of the county’s hot spots, which include parts of Anaheim and Santa Ana.

Officials on Thursday also downplayed the significance of Orange County’s missed opportunity to improve a tier this week, from red to orange, due to a slight uptick in case rates.

“Clearly, for all of us, it’s a reminder. This virus is unforgiving. We all have to be very vigilant about what we’re doing,” said Dr. Matthew Zahn, director for the Health Care Agency’s Communicable Disease Control division.

But, Zahn said, “We are in so much better shape than we were a couple of months ago.”

Source: Orange County Register

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