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COVID-19 widespread testing is crucial to fighting the pandemic, but is there enough testing? The answer is in the positivity rates.

USA TODAY

LOS ANGELES — California will begin to require counties to bring down coronavirus infection rates in disadvantaged communities that have been harder hit by the pandemic, a move that could slow the methodical reopening of the nation’s most populous state.

The complex new rules set in place an “equity metric” that will force larger counties to control the spread of COVID-19 in areas where Black, Latino and Pacific Islander groups have suffered a disproportionate share of the cases because of a variety of socioeconomic factors. 

“We can’t allow transmission rates to be so disproportionately impacting those communities without significant effort to really reduce that disparity and reduce the burden on those communities,” Dr. Mark Ghaly, the state’s health secretary, said Thursday. 

The measure could further put the brakes on the state’s conservative approach to a return to business as usual after a more rapid reopening of a larger segment of the economy in the spring, including allowing bars and indoor restaurant dining, was accompanied by surge of infections in early summer. 

A man wearing a face mask walks past a mural on Thursday in South Central Los Angeles. (Photo: Jae C. Hong, AP)

The latest reopening plan that took effect in August is a four-step process based on the percentage of positive tests and per capita new cases in each of the 58 counties. It allows counties to incrementally reopen businesses as they meet more rigid state standards for both numbers for two consecutive weeks. Counties can be forced to close businesses if their rates increase. 

The equity measure will require that positive test rates in its most disadvantaged neighborhoods, where rates are often much higher, do not significantly lag behind the county overall.

Dr. Sergio Aguilar-Gaxiola, director of the Center for Reducing Health Disparities at the University of California, Davis, said it was an innovative approach to controlling the epidemic that he hasn’t been applied elsewhere in the U.S. 

The outbreak is worse in Latino, Black and Pacific Islander communities because many work in higher-risk industries including agriculture, restaurants and nursing facilities and often live in crowded conditions that make it hard for people to isolate when they get sick. They often don’t have health care or resources if they can’t work. 

Latinos make up about 40% of the state’s population of just under 40 million, but about 60% of California’s more than 800,000 COVID-19 cases and almost half the nearly 16,000 deaths. 

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Infections that may be isolated to disadvantaged communities can quickly spread beyond those boundaries as more businesses reopen, more people return to work and people travel from widely. 

“This is kind of a Whack-a-Mole game,” Aguilar-Gaxiola said. “You have an outbreak in