Low income, rural areas hardest to practice social distancing

People living in poorer areas of Denver and in portions of Colorado’s Eastern Plains are in the worst positions to practice social distancing and may be most at risk of spreading the novel coronavirus, according to a new social distancing index released Friday.

The Colorado Health Institute used several factors to determine where the COVID-19 outbreak could be most impactful in Colorado, including percentage of people working in essential jobs that cannot be done remotely, areas with overcrowded housing and densely populated neighborhoods.

“Staying at home to help fight the coronavirus pandemic seems like a hardship for a lot of people,” Emily Johnson, director of Policy Analysis at the health institute, said in a news release. “But for others, it’s a luxury they can’t afford.”

The data will be able to help health officials target areas that may need additional resources to fight the pandemic. Neighborhoods with high scores on the index, for example, could be first in line to receive internet-connected thermometers or more coronavirus tests to provide an early warning of new outbreaks, the health institute said on its website.

The index found social distancing is hardest in agricultural areas such Yuma and Weld counties, as well as in lower-income Denver neighborhoods — such as Montbello and Westwood — where crowded housing and low-wage hands-on work make it easier for the virus to spread.

Researchers noted that overcrowding isn’t necessarily occurring where one might think. Central Denver is the most densely populated area in Colorado, but people there aren’t living in crowded conditions. Rather it’s in poorer areas — including Adams County suburbs along Interstate 25 and west of the Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge and northwest Aurora — where “current and historic discriminatory policies … have prevented people of color from owning homes and building generational wealth,” the Colorado Health Institute found.

Cell phone data analyzed by Tri-County Health found Adams County to have the highest rates of movement in the metro area, which the Colorado Health Institute says confirms their social distancing findings. These people don’t want to be going out, the institute says. They simply don’t have a choice.

“The index … demonstrates how social inequities in many neighborhoods can hinder public health efforts,” the health institute says on its website. “Public health professionals and social justice advocates have warned that a widening gap between the rich and poor will harm the health of the entire society. The pandemic is now driving that lesson home.”

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