Latinx Austinites With COVID-19 Are Twice As Likely To Be Hospitalized

May 12, 2020

The rate of COVID-19 hospitalizations is nearly double among the Latinx population in Austin and Travis County, health officials say.

Dr. Mark Escott, the interim Medical Director and Health Authority for Austin Public Health, told the Travis County Commissioners Court Tuesday that APH is struggling to contain the disproportionate impact of the disease caused by the new coronavirus among Latinx communities, suggesting more public outreach is necessary.

Early on, the infection rate had largely followed the Austin area's demographic breakdown, but numbers outlined today show a spike in cases among Latinx Austinites, who account for two-thirds of the hospitalizations through April 29:

  • 63.6% of cases are among Latinx Austinites
  • 21.9% of cases are among white Austinites
  • 14.1% of cases are among Austinites who identified demographically as "other"
  • 6.2% of cases are among African American Austinites
  • 4.7% of cases are among Asian American Austinites

Escott said some patients identified within multiple categories and there were data issues in combining hospital admission data and epidemiology data collected by APH, which accounts for the numbers not exactly adding up. 

"When we're looking at two-and-a-half times the regular population, I want to know that ... we're doing specific things to address things to address this disparity."

Still, Escott said the increases in hospitalizations "far outpaced their representation in our community."

For comparison, Latinx Austinites make up about 34% of the population, while white Austinites are roughly half of the population. Last week's update put that rate of hospitalization for Latinx COVID-19 patients at 48%.

Escott said there are multiple factors for the jump. Mainly, the increase in testing capacity in the Austin area, which is still below the county's goal of testing 2,000 people a day.

But there's also struggle on the part of health officials to limit the spread of COVID-19 among Latinx communities. APH expected this increase, Escott said, mainly because some communities may have multi-generational households or may have family members who may be considered essential workers – or ones who are going back to work as the state continues its phased reopening of businesses. On top of that, Latinx and black families are historically more likely to be uninsured in Travis County and Texas overall.

Escott said the disparity is something city and county officials are going to "continue to address through targeted interventions, targeted media campaigns aimed at our minority communities, so that we can get a handle on this [and] we can try to intervene in a way that's going to reduce that burden in those communities."

Precinct 4 Commissioner Margaret Gómez said she's spoken with constituents, neighbors and friends in Southeast Austin, and that she personally has seen a drop-off in social distancing, wearing facial coverings and limiting person-to-person contacts as the state's relaxed its rules, allowing businesses to reopen.

"I think the fact that the word got out that we now can go to work has kind of just messed everything up, because they think it's safe," she said. "People think it's safe to go back to work and not have to wear a mask, and we're back to normal. And it's so difficult to get the word out [that], 'No. No. It is not a normal time – not yet – and it won't be for a long, long time.'"

Gómez and Precinct 2 Commissioner Brigid Shea both suggested APH and health officials engage in more outreach by releasing PSAs on Spanish-speaking platforms to address the recent spike in hospitalizations.

"I think the fact that the word got out that we now can go to work has kind of just messed everything up, because they think it's safe."

Precinct 1 Commissioner Jeff Travillion said he hoped the county addressed that disparity, as well as the disparities in East Austin. While he commended the public health authority and CommUnity Care on their recent pop-up testing clinic in Austin's Colony in East Austin, he said he's concerned COVID-19 could inevitably impact black and brown communities in Austin disproportionately, as it has throughout the United States.

"I'm interested particularly in the geographic locations of folks who have been found to be positive and how we are standing up testing in those geographic locations – and specifically free testing," he said. "When we're looking at two-and-a-half times the regular population, I want to know that ... we're doing specific things to address things to address this disparity."

Escott said Austin Public Health's public-enrollment platform for testing could address possible testing gaps, which he believes will give public health authorities a clearer picture of where to increase outreach and offer more testing opportunities. Still, he warned that if people slack off and discontinue social distancing or wearing masks – that if COVID-19 spikes – that projections say the Austin area could be back under a mandatory stay-at-home rule by as soon as June 1.

"If you look at the numbers of new cases reported by week, it indicates that there's more disease in the community now than there has ever been," he said, "So that should be a warning sign to folks that the time for caution is not over, and we have to be vigilant."

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