Our sense of shame is in short supply.
As of Tuesday, the coronavirus pandemic had killed more than 226,000 people across the United States, 17,000-plus in California and almost 1,750 here in the Bay Area. Of that local amount, 461 people—or about 26 percent—resided in Alameda County. That figure is nearly a hundred more people than the number the virus had claimed by mid-September.
But finding out exactly who is dying in the East Bay, and where each person took that last breath, is more difficult to pinpoint.
Data compiled by Alameda County health officials show that the coronavirus has hit predominantly low-income communities of color in East Oakland harder than any other place in the Bay Area. Maps that track infections in the 94601, 94621 and 94603 zip codes—starting in the Meadow Brook and Oak Tree neighborhoods and running south down the Interstate 880 corridor to the Coliseum and Brookfield—show a deep shade of blue that inspires none of the optimism one might hope for in a consequential election season.
Each of these East Oakland zip codes is registering more than 4,300 positive cases per 100,000 residents, which is more than double most other parts of the county. By comparison, the next highest rate of positive tests in Alameda County can be found in two zip codes in Hayward, where 2,612 and 2,345 per 100,000 have tested positive. No other zip codes in the county surpass an infection rate of 2 percent. The only place in the Bay Area area that comes close to the rate of cases seen in East Oakland is in San Francisco’s Bayview/HuntersPoint, another historically Black neighborhood.
But how many people have died from coronavirus in East Oakland? That’s a tricky question, as the county’s COVID-19 dashboard doesn’t list locations for deaths, but instead simply tracks them over time.
A public records request filed by the East Bay Express found that as of Tuesday, 65 people had been killed by the virus in the three East Oakland zip codes where infection has run rampant, accounting for 14 percent of the county’s total Covid-19 deaths. But that figure is disproportionate to the population of these zip codes, which represent just 7 percent of all of Alameda County residents.
“My overarching concern is what it’s been from the beginning—that our communities will not only be disproportionately impacted but will also continue to be impacted beyond the time that we’re all looking toward—when it will, basically, be controlled through a vaccine,” says Dr. Noha Aboelata, CEO of Roots Community Health Center on International Boulevard in East Oakland. The group started testing people from the city’s most-impacted zip codes in April and began contact tracing efforts in July.
The county’s overall covid-related deaths among Black people (52 per 100,000) and Latinos (34.7 per 100,000) are also disproportionately high, but the extent of the problem in local coronavirus hot spots could be greater than even known.
Alameda County health officials admit that the number of cases in the three most-impacted East Oakland zip codes are likely higher due to an imbalance of testing rates in these places compared to high infection rates.
“I think that’s a problem and it’s a real problem we’ve been attempting to address with our testing program and where we’ve invested our own resources both financial resources and efforts to bring other testing programs into play,” says Dr. Nicholas Moss, an infectious disease expert and Alameda County’s interim health officer since July. “It hasn’t been enough when you look at these maps to change the testing rate, though it’s not due to a lack of effort.”
At least not on the county’s part.
While missteps might have been made locally regarding a delay in ordering masks to be worn or reopening too quickly after the shelter-in-place orders went into effect, the most ludicrous aspect of the U.S. response to the pandemic has been the fact that since mid-March, county and state health departments have been leading the charge in issuing health orders and coordinating testing and tracing efforts. With no disrespect to the people in charge of local efforts, the U.S. response is essentially being led by the minor leaguers of medicine, from the bottom-up instead of the top-down. The result over the last seven months has been a haphazard mashup of data dashboards in which counties and states are left to their own devices to conduct testing and contact tracing while compiling information that can’t be easily cross-referenced.
California officials have coordinated with counties on testing and signing off on re-openings, but the state’s role has essentially been to act as a monitor and personal protective equipment facilitator. Meanwhile, Trump has continued to claim victory in the face of nearly a quarter-million dead and tens of thousands more expected to die as his campaign hosts super-spreader events and the Republican-led Senate prioritizes the appointment of a ultra-conservative Supreme Court judge over passing covid-relief packages.
“There has been a federal abdication, and one of the most harmful parts of has been not just the lack of testing but the misinformation,” Aboelata says.
The only reason the public has gained even an opaque understanding of the crisis is thanks to medical experts, the media and counties, which, in partnership with public health systems, private hospitals, community health clinics, nonprofits and churches, have been given the Herculean task of coordinating testing and tracing programs on the fly. Parsing through the data has been mostly left to doctors and journalists who have tracked the pandemic’s deadly toll, day by day, in a time-consuming process that was made difficult by design—in the sense that not having a federal plan means never having to admit the nation has failed.