A new study shows low-income Utahns — who are often minorities — are being hit much harder by the pandemic than their wealthier neighbors.
Six University of Utah researchers and two students compared COVID-19 cases in 34 ZIP codes in Salt Lake County and found that low-income areas have the highest rates of positive cases.
“People residing in those ZIP codes generally are essential workers, so they are out in the community at higher risk” Daniel Mendoza, research assistant professor in atmospheric sciences at the University of Utah and lead investigator of the project, said.
“We like to euphemize things because it makes everyone feel better by saying ‘essential workers,‘” he said. “But … in the eyes of the economy, these people are expendable, they’re expendable workers.”
In the west side Salt Lake City neighborhoods of Glendale and Rose Park, the rate of positive cases was almost 10 times higher than wealthier areas like Sandy, Draper and Emigration Oaks.
Low-income communities also have a harder time accessing health care. “They’re predisposed [to coronavirus] essentially because maybe they don’t have access to medicine, they don’t have access to doctors,” Mendoza said.
He attributed this to the cost of health care and the fact that Utah’s hospitals and clinics are primarily located on the east side of the Salt Lake Valley, farther from low-income neighborhoods.
During Utah’s economic shutdown, air quality also improved much more on the east side of Salt Lake County than on the west side showing that wealthier Utahns had the option to work from home, which decreased traffic. Mendoza said levels of the air pollutant PM2.5 are already higher on the west side due to the freeway, factories and industry.
In neighborhoods on the east side, traffic decreased by up to 50% as more Utahns stayed home, but in lower-income ZIP codes it went down about 10%-15%. There were similar patterns with air quality in these ZIP codes because traffic contributes to about 50% of air pollution.
Mendoza said researchers will share this data with legislators and stakeholders.
He recognized that some Utahns have to keep working in person for the economy to move forward, but asked how they can be better prepared in the future — considering that vulnerable populations often have underlying health problems and less job flexibility.
Mendoza said encouraging health practices like using hand sanitizer, washing hands, social distancing, and using masks helped coronavirus cases decrease while the economy was shut down. He mentioned that in Asia, people have been wearing masks for years.
City Councilman Andrew Johnston, who represents District 2 in Salt Lake City — which includes Glendale, Poplar Grove and Fairpark — echoed the sentiment that the state needs more education about the importance of face coverings and good hygiene.
“[It’s really] frustrating that this becomes a political issue about having face masks of all things,” he said.
“People who aren’t wearing [face masks], may not be as much at risk but my folks are in my neighborhood, of course they are, that’s where it’s going to hit.”
Johnston said the pandemic has drawn attention to systemic inequalities in his district and across the state.
“I’m upset, I’m angry, I’m frustrated,” he said. “One of my neighbors said it recently — that all the problems we’ve known we have with racism and classism and inequality and unequal access to health care and education and employment … it’s still there, it’s just worse during COVID.”
Many of Johnston’s neighbors can’t work from home and have a difficult choice to make. They either stay home and sacrifice their incomes or they work in person and risk contracting COVID-19 and bringing it home to their families.
When schools reopen in the fall, many families in low-income areas won’t have the option to keep their children at home if they can’t afford child care. This means if schools don’t provide adequate social distancing these Utahns will continue to be vulnerable to the pandemic.
It’s also harder for these families to self-isolate after testing positive for the virus because of large families and many people living in smaller homes than in most of Salt Lake County.
“You don’t social distance in a 5,000-square-foot house in my district,” Johnston said. “We don’t all have that.”
Johnston said lack of access to testing is also an issue. Utahns who don’t have health insurance may not feel comfortable going to get tested if they don’t know that testing is free.
A social worker by trade, Johnston said the state needs to fix the health care system and all of the underlying inequalities that are causing his district to be hit hardest by the virus. He said it is important to get more masks to his district, to clarify that testing is free and to ensure that a vaccine, when available, reaches his district.
Johnston said despite earnest efforts from state and county government, these issues are still a problem for his neighborhood.
“Somehow we still cannot figure out how to deliver adequate services to the underrepresented populations after this many months dealing with it,” he said.
Johnston said unless the state is willing to ensure that everyone gets fair access to health care regardless of income, language, gender and race, the issues low-income areas are facing won’t be fixed by the efforts of a few state legislators.
Daniel Strong, former chairman of the Rose Park Community Council, also thinks government leaders could do more to help his community.
“It makes me feel terrible on behalf of my neighborhood to know that we are being affected so disproportionately,” Strong said in an interview. “I feel like there has been a real failure to provide resources.”
Strong said he would love for Rose Park to have a quarantine center where people can self isolate and avoid spreading the coronavirus to their families. “If we know that there’s more suffering happening in poorer communities, I would hope that humanity compels us to try to do better.”