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High infection rate:

By David Rosenfeld and Ryan Carter

Staff writers

PACOIMA » Janet Marinaccio watched as the stream of people wrapped around the block. The line of cars Friday stretched for more than 2 miles.

Why the clamor? At the end of the lines sat 500 boxes of free food from the nonprofit she leads.

“There’s far more people here than I think anybody imagined,” said Marinaccio, president and CEO of MEND (Meet Each Need with Dignity), which hosted the drive along with the Pacoima Neighborhood Council and Assemblywoman Luz Rivas. “People are struggling. That’s the reality.”


TOP: Walter Antonio loads a meal into a truck at Meet Each Need with Dignity in Pacoima on Friday. The Pacoima Neighborhood Council, in partnership with MEND and Assemblywoman Luz Rivas, offered a distribution of Thanksgiving meals for 500 families.

ABOVE: The line for holiday meals circles the MEND building Pacoima.



Underpinning the massive demand: COVID-19. It’s hit the San Fernando Valley hard. Its second surge, which rekindled restrictions last week on both the state and county levels, is on pace to hit even harder than the first wave.

In the largely Latino, working-class communities of the East Valley — Pacoima, Sun Valley, Arleta, and Mission Hills, among them — infection rates are as much as six times higher than such areas as the South Bay and West L.A. Of 25 coronavirus hotspots ranked by the L.A. County Department of Health, 10 are clustered in the Valley.

Demographics clearly detail why this area is among Southern California’s most vulnerable. Many who live here are impoverished, with higher levels of chronic health conditions. Many hold jobs that don’t allow them to work from home. When they return from work, it’s to high-density living arrangements, often with multiple generations represented in the same dwelling. Scores of kids are home all day, too, connected from afar to distance learning that aims to fill the gap left by shuttered classrooms.

Still many spurn getting tested, fearing a positive result that will cost days or weeks of sick time, vacation days — and paychecks.

This devastating formula speeds the spread of the virus among these residents, many of whom lack access to the level of health care and services that their peers in other areas take for granted.

Amid the as-yet uncontrolled second surge, public health officials are focusing on such areas, where COVID-19 grows with fierce intensity. They’re allocating additional resources, including walk-up testing and community outreach, in hopes of slowing down the relentless spread.

A recent study by researchers at the UCLA BRITE Center showed that areas throughout the county with the highest rates of coronavirus infection shared commonalities that made them more vulnerable. The study generated maps that examined such factors as preexisting health status, barriers to accessing services, the population density and what the authors described as the “social vulnerability index.”

In each case, the data showed that where people were more vulnerable, less healthy, living in denser neighborhoods and with less access to services, the rates of coronavirus were commensurately higher.

“I think we provide greater specificity of what risk factors create vulnerability in which groups,” said Vickie Mays, a lead author on the report. “The risk is not exactly the same depending on their geographic area.”

Public health officials have continually broken down the rates of coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths by race. But Mays said the reasons are more nuanced than just race, so the study considered myriad factors.

“What happens to minorities is you are more likely to have multigenerational households. Particularly in immigrant families, you are often going to have two generations in a household,” Mays said. “You may have in the household unrelated individuals that live together for economic reasons. There may be more older people with greater vulnerability in the household.”

People in these households are more likely to be essential workers, going off to businesses where they could be exposed. Bringing the virus home with them, someone vulnerable could become seriously ill. Add to that another factor, which is reluctance to get tested, and it’s really a perfect storm of circumstances.

“A lot of people in Pacoima are afraid to get tested for that reason. God forbid if they come out positive, they will have to stay home for two weeks,” said Elisa Avalos, president of the Pacoima Neighborhood Council. “There are houses with four bedrooms that rent each room. If someone gets sick in that room, that means four other families will get sick, but they choose not to get tested because they’re afraid.”

Many workers are forced to use up sick time and vacation days when they are required to quarantine or isolate. For others, they just don’t get paid. Without sufficient government assistance, many people are posed with an untenable decision: Return to work and provide for their family or possibly expose their loved ones to a dangerous virus. Worried they might lose work, many choose not to get tested.

Others are choosing between high-speed internet and utilities, which makes home schooling even more difficult.

“Right now you’re picking and choosing,” Avalos said. “Is it food, water and power? Is it putting gas in your car? It’s sad and frustrating to look at their kids and say they can’t provide for you this month.”

Hitting home in Arleta

From the very beginning of the pandemic, Julian Ramirez and his family did everything they could to prevent the coronavirus from getting to them. They have a sink behind the house and they would leave their shoes outside.

Julian’s wife, Saramaria, a nurse, changed clothes and showered before hugging their 10-year-old son after getting home from work.

As troubling as the pandemic was in their neighborhood, the Ramirez household — complete with in-laws and nephew — were doing their best to be safe at a pivotal time as the coronavirus was cascading exponentially.

But they could only do so much.

Saramaria, 36, a devoted mom, had been diagnosed with late-stage cancer. To make matters tragically worse, she caught coronavirus, Ramirez said.

On May 27, she died. Though young, in the end, her immune system was no match for a virus that would infect Julian, his father-inlaw and, he suspects, others in the household who had symptoms but, strangely, tested negative.

Saramaria is one of the 7,329 L.A. County residents who have died from complications related to the coronavirus. Among them, more than 100 health care workers.

“She was the best in the world,” Julian Ramirez said.

At nearby Providence Holy Cross Medical Center, Chief Executive Dr. Bernard Klein said the hospital was starting to see an uptick in patients admitted with the coronavirus, nearly doubling over the past two weeks to more than 40 patients as of Thursday.

“We can handle a lot more patients,” Klein said. “In fact we already have a plan in case the volume of patients continues to increase. However, when we get above 50 patients, it gets challenging to get enough staff to care for them.”

Hospitalizations for the coronavirus in Los Angeles County have been on the upswing since the beginning of October, having bottomed out at 673 people with confirmed cases hospitalized on Oct. 2. As of Friday, the number had nearly doubled with 1,298 confirmed patients hospitalized.

Among 16 hospitals in the San Fernando Valley, COVID- 19 patients increased from 198 on Nov. 1 to 247 on Tuesday. Based on current modelling if the rate of infection remains about the same, the county could be in danger of running out of intensive care unit beds within the next month, according to Dr. Christina Ghaly, the county’s health services director in a message on Wednesday.

“It certainly makes me anxious about what the near future is going to bring,” Klein said. “We want to make sure we treat every patient with compassion and the best quality care we can provide. So I’m anxious if we start to get overrun with patients.”

Eddie Gonzalez, who represents the Pacoima Chamber of Commerce, said many local businesses are struggling and people are doing whatever they can to make ends meet in a community where average per capita income is $22,000 and 15% live below the poverty level. As a result, many people have turned to selling items out of cars or on sidewalks.

“People are selling masks, food, drinks, anything they can to make money,” he said.

Gonzalez said there’s an awareness in the area about the surging virus and the need to adhere to safety measures, even if motivated by fear. But there are conflicting forces, he said, that threaten the public health in this proud community.

“I feel like there are a lot of people who are anxious to go out and about, but then they have grandma living at home, or the elderly,” he said. “Now you have more people to potentially infect.”

Looking for solutions

In response to the ac-


Butter and eggs are placed in individual containers for distribution at MEND in Pacoima. Community leaders say they must rely on each other.


A line of people stretches for more than 2miles Friday in Pacoima to receive food. The East Valley’s rate of coronavirus infections is six times higher than other county areas.

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