Cooler weather is here, and the LA County Department of Public Health (DPH) is advising residents to take precautions against the flu, COVID-19 and Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV).
RSV is not a new virus, explained Dr. Barbara Ferrer, DPH director, during a recent webcast although it has come to light in the past few weeks in relation to the rising cases in children and high numbers of pediatric hospital ward admissions.
“We’ve seen spikes before,” noted Ferrer. “We had RSV last year. It’s one of the respiratory viruses. Some years it hits us hard, some years we have a milder season.”
Ferrer explained that because the majority of residents were wearing masks for the past two-plus years, there hadn’t been as many cases.
“These masks work pretty well against many respiratory viruses,” Ferrer said before moving onto her weekly briefing about COVID-19 cases in the county. “With this much relative illness circulating, people who are concerned may want to go ahead right now and put masks back on.”
She mentioned that from January through June this year, Black and Latino death rates were higher than rates among White residents. Reasons vary from home or workplace overcrowding, poor health, lack of resources, or poor access to healthcare.
According to Black Women Rally for Action – Los Angeles 66.2% of the county’s Black population over 12 have received at least one vaccination. But that means nearly 34% have not.
In a Nov. 9 report, the DPH reported 532 new COVID-19 cases among Blacks over the previous week (up by 90). The County also recorded seven deaths among Blacks that week, (up by four souls).
Black Women Rally for Action reported that only 159 Blacks, 12-year-olds and older, were vaccinated from Oct. 23 through Oct. 30 in Los Angeles County, compared to 229 the week before.
African-Americans have the lowest vaccination and booster rates among all populations, according to the group’s report, “A Look Back on the Impact of COVID-19 among Blacks in Los Angeles County – Two-Year Assessment 2022.”
The report notes that the Black community continues to face additional roadblocks including histories of medical trauma — including dangerous and involuntary experimentation. Additionally, many Blacks struggle to find culturally appropriate, culturally competent, and culturally responsible healthcare services and health workers. There are many disparities and medical injustices which have led to a general mistrust in the medical establishment as a whole. Additionally, there are financial barriers standing in the way of patients from lower-socio-economic backgrounds.
In 2019, Black people disproportionately experienced poverty, including housing and food-insecurity, 1.8 times greater than that of other groups—pointing to structural and systemic racism, including discriminatory policies including redlining and housing discrimination.
The report concludes that it is the responsibility of medical providers and physicians to help bridge these gaps through focusing on providing nuanced and culturally-conscious COVID-19 education and care to patients and members of the Black community.
DPH believes it has increased access to vaccines and therapeutics and there are few barriers, but the department fears that the ethnicity disparity gaps will get wider everytime the county heads into a virus surge, and one seems to be approaching this fall.
“There are disparities,” Ferrer said. “It is sobering and it requires continued attention from all of us.”
Another possible driver of illnesses is the continuing existence of myths in the community which have adults and parents of vaccination-eligible youth concerned about the COVID-19 vaccine.
Dr. Branden Turner, a family practice physician with the Kaiser Permanente Baldwin Hills Medical Center, likens the covid vaccine hesitancy to that of the flu shot.
“The biggest misnomer with the flu vaccine is that it gives you the flu,” he said. “I must hear that twice a week. We know that the actual flu vaccine does not contain any active, live parts of the flu and is not able to give you the flu.”
Turner explained that like the flu shot, the covid vaccine ramps up the body’s immune system and for some people, ramping up that immunity can make one experience side effects.
Turner said that when he first meets patients they are hesitant, but as they have come to know him over years, attitudes have changed and they are now quick to get their flu shot before the season.
“They get it now,” he said. “They trust me in a way now that they didn’t trust me two years ago. I don’t think I’m saying anything different than before.”
Turner feels that the biggest reason behind both covid and flu vaccine hesitancy in the community is lack of trust in the healthcare system. Many residents are relying on friends and family as their confidants.
“Word of mouth is a very powerful thing,” Turner said. “So much of it is getting info from a solid source and more than from a source your gut trusts.”
Another misnomer many adults have is that they can “tough this out” when they catch covid, and spend four or five days in bed to recover. Others proclaim that “covid doesn’t kill people,” noting that although the death rate was 20% back in March 2020, it since has dropped to 1% because of vaccines, precautionary measures and covid patient treatments, which have improved since the onset of the pandemic.
“So they take chances,” Turner said, noting that covid has other symptoms beyond death. Long-covid has affected patients with memory loss, “brain fog,” and tiredness. Vaccines show that even these effects are preventable.
“Once you start having experience with people who had covid, you think,” Turner said, noting that his family is fully vaccinated and boosted. He has two children – a two and a four year old. He said he would not want to watch them suffer through four or five days of covid, nor risk the aftereffects.
“I would do anything to protect my kids,” he said. “They still wear masks to school. Sometimes we look like the weirdos wearing masks in grocery stores.”
The DPH reminds residents to take advantage of the annual flu vaccine and updated covid booster shots that are available. Also, they recommend frequent, 20-second hand washing; use of an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if water is unavailable; and the use of well-fitting, high-protection masks.
“It’s important to stay hydrated,” Ferrer said, noting water, broth, juice and other liquids should be consumed regularly. She also suggested that residents disinfect and wipe down surfaces. “It’s a good practice to keep up throughout the winter season.”
All of those practices will help through the expected coming surge.
“Viruses are part of the natural world,” Ferrer said. “This is not something we can control but it is something we can prepare around.”
Our Weekly coverage of local news in Los Angeles County is supported by the Ethnic Media Sustainability Initiative, a program created by California Black Media and Ethnic Media Services to support minority-owned-and-operated community newspapers across California.