A team of UCLA researchers Wednesday announced a predictive model to help guide public health officials on which neighborhoods in Los Angeles County should be prioritized for vaccine distribution based on residents’ risks of COVID-19.

The model’s maps and data are publicly available, and the research titled “COVID-19 Medical Vulnerability Indicators: A Predictive, Local Data Model for Equity in Public Health Decision Making,” is set to be published in the International Journal of Environmental Health.

According to the author, Dr. Vickie Mays of the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, the model “can guide public health officials and local leaders across the nation to harness already-available local data to determine which groups in which neighborhoods are most vulnerable and how to prevent new infections.”

Researchers noted that in order for Los Angeles County to fully reopen amid the pandemic, at-risk neighborhoods need to be reached with vaccines. The model’s map shows each neighborhood in the county based on residents preexisting medical conditions, barriers to health care access, built environment characteristics and socioeconomic challenges.

Neighborhoods with racial and ethnic minorities, low-income residents and those with unmet social needs, specifically in and around South Los Angeles and the eastern San Fernando Valley, remain vulnerable to COVID-19, according to the model.

Those areas, along with the cities of Palmdale and Lancaster, “need more than just someone showing up and saying `We are here with a vaccine for you,” according to Mays. “These are also the same communities where it will take education about the vaccine, strategies that focus on bringing households together and incentives that bring people out even to listen to why they should take the vaccine; this is especially important in working with the Black population.”

UCLA’s model indicates that whiter areas along the coast and northwestern part of the county are the least vulnerable.

According to County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer on Wednesday, vaccination rates among Black and Latino communities lag behind the rest of the population, particularly among younger age groups. Most recent figures showed that just 21% of Black residents and 32% of Latino residents aged 16-17 have received at least one dose so far. That compares to 51% of white residents and 67% of Asian residents aged 16-17.

Among 18-to-29-year-olds, just 24% of Black residents have received at least one dose and 37% of Latino residents. Among white residents in that group, the rate is 54%, and among Asians, it’s 70%.

The low vaccination rates have translated to higher rates of infections, hospitalizations and deaths among Black and Latino residents in recent weeks, Ferrer said.

The county has continued to expand its mobile vaccination efforts in hopes of reaching hard-hit communities. Along with financial incentives being offered by the state, the county is also offering prizes of its own for people who get vaccinated. The county expects in August to reach its target goal of getting 80% of county residents 16 and older at least partially vaccinated. Public health officials previously expected to meet the goal in July.

Mays’ model for vaccine priority is focused on L.A. County, but researchers say the methods can be duplicated across counties in the U.S. Researchers used existing literature and input of health experts to construct data on pre-existing conditions, barriers to health care access, and built environment risks for the models. Information on social vulnerability was obtained from the Centers for Disease Control’s 2018 social vulnerability index.

“When the pandemic hit, we were slowed down by a lack of science and a lack of understanding of the ways in which health disparities in the lives of some of our most vulnerable populations made their risk of COVID-19 infection even greater,” Mays said. “We thought elderly and people in nursing homes were the most vulnerable, yet we found that lacking a number of social resources contributes to a greater likelihood of getting infected and in some instances, leading to death as well.”

UCLA’s data and maps are available to the public at bit.ly/3g4fLDc.

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