(CALMATTERS) – In the city of Oakland, when census workers call residents, they’re on a dual mission. Not only do they ask if the individual has filled out a census card, they also ask whether that person wants to get tested for the coronavirus. If so, do they know where to go?

SAN JOSE, CA.- MAY 20: Coronavirus testing is offered in the parking lot of Antioch Baptist Church, on Wednesday, May 20, 2020, in San Jose, Calif. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

“It’s extremely creative,” said Dr. Tony Iton, a senior vice president of the California Endowment. “They’re doing census outreach in populations that are the hardest to reach, which are exactly the same populations that are disproportionately impacted by COVID.”

These are neighborhoods like East Oakland and the Fruitvale District, home to predominantly African Americans and Latinos. And, since census workers tend to be local, people are essentially checking in on their neighbors, Iton said. 

As California and the rest of the nation grapple with the pandemic, one lesson has become painfully clear. While the virus can attack anyone at any time, some populations have been harder hit than others — and testing and contact tracing in these communities will likely take more effort, according to Iton and other public health experts.

Contact tracers are workers trained to track down, interview and isolate people who have come in contact with an infected person.

“Contact tracing, that’s never going to work, particularly in the African American community where trust is a big issue, if we don’t have a solution that works directly with the black community,” said Dr. Stephen Lockhart, chief medical officer with Sutter Health in Northern California.  

Solutions need to rely on existing institutions and supports such as churches, barbershops and community leaders, Lockhart said.

Last week, Sutter Health published a Northern California study reinforcing what statewide data has shown— that coronavirus is taking a disproportionate toll on African Americans. According to the study, African Americans are almost three times as likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19 compared with non-Hispanic whites. And the majority, almost 70%, were tested in the hospital rather than in an outpatient setting, meaning it wasn’t until they were very sick that they got a diagnostic test.

Statewide, African Americans account for about 10% of coronavirus deaths, even though they make up only 6% of California’s population. Latinos make up more than half of the cases and about 38% of the deaths while they are 38.9% of the population, according to the California Department of Public Health, which tracks coronavirus cases and deaths by race and ethnicity.

By comparison, whites make up about 21% of the cases, about 34% of the deaths and 36.6% of the state’s population.

Iton, a former Alameda County public health officer, is among those trying to develop efficient contact tracing and testing among communities of color.

In order to minimize harm, Iton said, the state has to prioritize blanket testing, or test as many as possible — especially essential employees working in grocery stores and driving buses, as well as seniors. Outreach has to be persistent and aggressive, and contact tracing must be done in a culturally sensitive manner, he said. 

“If we do these things we would see disproportionality start to drop,” he said. 

Currently, contact tracers statewide are being pulled from a pool of city and county employees who aren’t working, such as librarians and property tax assessors. But as the economy opens up, they’ll return to work. Iton’s organization is working to  assemble groups already working with African Americans and Latinos to help find local tracers.