UCLA COVID-19 Study Suggests Different Metrics to Incorporate Affected Minority Groups in Vaccine Rollout

By: Ishani Desai

LOS ANGELES — According to a recent UCLA study, the method used to determine recipients for the COVID-19 vaccine throughout LA County is flawed.

American-Indians, Pacific Islanders, Cambodians, Filipinos, and Koreans do not live in neighborhoods susceptible to the coronavirus but still contract COVID-19 at a high rate, said co-authors Paul Ong, a research professor at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs, and Jonathan Ong, a graduate student.

These individuals are not prioritized to receive the vaccine because a previous study identified other determinant factors for vaccine distribution that excluded these ethnicities from consideration.

Paul Ong and the Director of the UCLA BRITE Center, Vickie May, co-authored a research paper that created the model originally sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Health Resources and Services Administration in November 2020. This study provided public agencies data to distribute the COVID-19 vaccine efficiently.

The residents of these areas must be vaccinated first to best mitigate and lessen the coronavirus’s effects on LA County as a whole, said the public health policy experts.

This November 2020 study created the UCLA Preexisting Health Vulnerability index to pinpoint communities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.

The UCLA Preexisting Health Vulnerability index includes four indicators to determine the high-risk residential areas: preexisting conditions, barriers to accessing services, built-environment risk, and social vulnerability.

According to the index and the research findings, neighborhoods resided by mostly Black, Latino, Cambodians, Hmongs, and Laotians families were at a high risk of contracting the disease.

A preexisting condition can be defined by having poor health and food insecurity, as well as high rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

Groups that lived in neighborhoods with the highest percentages of preexisting conditions included 73% of Black families, 70% of Latino families, and 60% of Cambodians, Hmongs, and Laotians.

In comparison, 60% of white families lived in areas with low preexisting conditions.

The research study is not only helpful to determine the vaccine distribution method. Policymakers can also use this study to correctly establish public health initiatives to mitigate the disease’s effects.

Health officials could use Ong’s research to create hand-washing and social distancing announcements in Spanish for areas with fewer English-speaking residents. Social workers and volunteers can best determine where to distribute food and other primary necessities.

“Knowing precisely which populations are the most vulnerable and where new infections are likely to occur is critical information in determining how to allocate scarce resources and when to open or close areas,” Mays and Ong said.

The importance of this data demonstrates Ong’s move to create a new study that factors in the shortcomings of the original model.

“If [the pandemic] was going to have a profound impact on society and a profound impact on disadvantaged neighborhoods and populations, then we believed that we could make a difference in terms of working to generate additional insights,” Ong said.

The UCLA Preexisting Health Vulnerability index vaccinated populations based on geographical locations and left out American-Indians, Pacific Islanders, Cambodians, Filipinos, and Koreans. These ethnic groups have higher-than-average rates of COVID-19 infection, according to Ongs’ study.

Although public health policy should not merely be implemented along racial lines, there should be research into certain groups as to why they are more affected by COVID-19 than others.

Pacific Islanders and Asian Americans are two to three times more likely to be essential workers than non-Latino white workers. Essential workers are most at risk of contracting the disease. Nationally, Filipino nurses are also ten times more likely to die from COVID-19, according to Ongs’ research report.

The study found that American-Indians and Cambodians are the least vulnerable among these individuals identified as high risk to contract the coronavirus.

Rather than using the UCLA Preexisting Health Vulnerability index that doles out vaccines according to geographic location, it is vital to use pandemic and policy-related goals when trying to mitigate the disease, according to Ongs’ research.

Community stakeholders and policymakers can weigh factors such as multigenerational housing, disability status, and occupation to offset the shortcomings within research models and pinpoint vulnerable local populations.

Urban planners and other researchers can also use Ongs’ new study in the future to create policies that will alleviate the disparities within society the pandemic has exacerbated.

“The legacy of the damages from the pandemic is not going to disappear,” Ong said. “We’re going to have to live with those inequalities.”

Ishani Desai is a writer for the LA Vanguard’s campus and city desk. She is a history major at UCLA, originally from Bakersfield, CA.

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