The demographics of COVID deaths in California have changed since 2020

As California settles into a third year of a pandemic, COVID-19 continues to pose a serious death threat. But the number of people who died — and the demographics of those who died — changed dramatically in the first two years.

Given the herd immunity people have gained through a combination of mass vaccination and protections built from previous infections, Californians overall were much less likely to die of COVID in 2022, when the omicron variant was dominant, only during the first two years of the pandemic, when other variants were widely in play, amplifying a national trend.

Yet every week the virus kills hundreds of Californians, hitting the unvaccinated the hardest. The virus remained among the state’s leading causes of death in July, trailing heart disease, cancer, stroke and Alzheimer’s disease, but surpassing diabetes, accidental death and a host of others. debilitating diseases. In the first seven months of the year, about 13,500 California residents died of COVID, according to preliminary death certificate data from the state Department of Public Health. By comparison, the virus killed around 31,400 people in 2020 and nearly 44,000 in 2021.

From April 2020 to December 2021, COVID killed an average of 3,600 people per month, making it the third leading cause of death in the state cumulatively for that period, behind heart disease and cancer. From December 2020 to February 2021, it briefly overtook heart disease as the leading cause of death, killing more than 38,300 Californians in just three months. At its most recent peak, in January 2022, COVID claimed the lives of approximately 5,900 people.

Covid fell from the top 10 causes of death for a brief period in the spring to re-enter this summer as the omicron variant continued to mutate. In July, even with more than 70% of Californians fully vaccinated, COVID was the fifth leading cause of death, shortening more than 1,000 lives, according to state data.

Clearly, the vaccinations made a difference. Covid death rates have plummeted in recent months as COVID injections and earlier infections offered significant protection against serious illness for much of the population, said Dr Timothy Brewer, professor of medicine and science. epidemiology at UCLA. Brewer said the omicron variant, although more transmissible than previous strains, appears to be a milder version of the virus.

Research into this is ongoing, but preliminary data suggests that omicron is less likely to cause serious illness and death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which also notes that the severity of symptoms may be affected by vaccination status, age and other health conditions.

The decline in deaths has been particularly striking among California’s Latino population.

In 2020 and 2021, Latino residents accounted for 47% of COVID deaths in California — about 35,400 deaths — despite making up 40% of the state’s population. By comparison, Latinos accounted for 34% of COVID deaths from January to July 2022, according to state data. This translates to approximately 4,600 deaths.

Conversely, the proportion of COVID deaths involving white residents rose from 32% in the first two years of the pandemic to 44% in the first seven months of 2022. This equates to 24,400 deaths involving residents whites in 2020-21 and about 6,000 deaths in the first seven months of 2022. Whites make up about 35% of the state’s population.

The researchers point to several factors in the change. In the first two years of the pandemic, many of the workers deemed essential, who continued to show up in person at job sites, were Latino, while white residents were more likely to be employed in occupations that suit them. made it possible to work from home in the United States. Census Bureau surveys show it.

“They were just exposed more,” said Dr. George Rutherford, a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California, San Francisco. “They are doing essential work and had to leave the house and go to work.”

An imbalance in remote work persists, according to census data, but today the vast majority of Latino and white workers in California show up for work in person.

Seciah Aquino, deputy director of the Latino Coalition for a Healthy California, said efforts to ensure testing, treatment and vaccinations were available to underserved communities of color were also having an impact. And because Latino communities have been hit so hard during the pandemic, she said, many Latinos in California are still wearing masks. “They always make sure they stay home if they’re sick,” she said. “They still adhere to those policies even if the larger narrative changes.”

Age is also a key factor in demographic shifts, Brewer said.

Californians age 75 and older accounted for 53% of COVID deaths through July 2022, compared to 46% in 2020 and 2021. Only about 6% of state residents are 75 and older. And white Californians 75 and older outnumber Latinos in that age group about 3 to 1.

During the initial vaccination rollout, California prioritized the elderly, first responders and other essential workers, and for several months in 2021, older residents were much more likely to be vaccinated than younger Californians. .

“Now vaccination rates have caught up with just about everyone except children, under 18s,” Brewer said. “You see it going back to what we’ve seen before, which is that age remains the most important risk factor for death.”

More than 86% of Californians age 65 and older have completed their primary round of COVID shots. But the protection offered by vaccines wanes over time, and because many older people got vaccinated early, enough time has passed between their second shot and the omicron wave of early 2022 to leave them vulnerable. About a third of Californians age 65 and older had not received a reminder by early 2022 when the omicron wave peaked, and about a quarter still have not received a reminder.

Geographic shifts in COVID prevalence have occurred throughout the pandemic: outbreaks hit one area while another is spared, and then another community serves as the epicenter months later.

Residents of the San Francisco-Oakland metro area accounted for 7.8% of the state’s deaths in 2022, through early September, compared to 5.4% in 2020-21. The region is home to approximately 12% of the state’s residents. The Sacramento metro area also accounted for a higher share of COVID deaths this year: 6% in 2022 versus 4.5% in 2020-21.

Meanwhile, residents of metro Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim accounted for 42% of COVID deaths in 2022, down slightly from 43% in 2020-21. The region is home to approximately 33% of the state’s residents. A similar decline occurred in the nearby Riverside-San Bernardino metro area.

Again, age could be a factor in geographic shifts. A higher proportion of San Francisco and Sacramento residents are 75 and older than in Los Angeles and Riverside, according to census data.

We don’t know if this change will last. As the Los Angeles Times reported, COVID deaths rose at a faster rate in July in LA County than in the Bay Area.

The data also shows that vaccination remains one of the main deterrents against death from COVID. From January to July, unvaccinated Californians died about five times more than vaccinated Californians. But the gap has narrowed. From April to December 2021, unvaccinated California residents died, on average, at about 10 times the rate of vaccinated Californians.

Brewer said the gap narrowed because the omicron variant was more likely than previous variants to “break through” and cause infection in vaccinated Californians. The omicron variant, although less lethal, has also infected many more people than previous variants.

This trend, too, may prove short-lived: The next generation of COVID reminders is rolling out across the state.

Phillip Reese is a data communications specialist and assistant professor of journalism at California State University-Sacramento. This article first appeared on California Healthline, which is produced by Kaiser Health News.

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