Denver’s blue-collar neighborhoods hit hard by COVID

Between March 2020 and the end of December, Denver reported just under seven COVID-19 cases per 100 people, but that number masked huge variation in who was actually getting sick.

A new map from the Colorado Health Institute shows the number of coronavirus cases compared to population in neighborhoods from Douglas County to Weld County, and reveals poorer neighborhoods had more cases than wealthier ones nearby.

Denver’s Westwood neighborhood was the hardest hit, with about 2.7 times as many identified cases compared to population as the regional average. The nearby Platt Park neighborhood, by contrast, had fewer than one-third as many cases as the average — roughly one-eighth of the rate in Westwood, which can be reached with a quick drive down Mississippi Avenue.

Westwood was hit hard by the pandemic from multiple fronts, said Paul Casey, executive director of Westwood Unidos. Many residents lost their jobs during the stay-at-home order in spring 2020, and those who were still working risked bringing the virus back to their families, including grandparents who live with them, he said.

“It really did go like wildfire through the neighborhood,” he said.

When the data is mapped, Denver’s “upside-down L” of neighborhoods where banks wouldn’t lend money in the first half of the 20th century because of their demographics is visible, said Joe Hanel, director of communications at the Colorado Health Institute.

The L roughly tracks with Interstates 70 and 25, and stands out on maps of where more people live in poverty, have less education, have shorter lifespans or even have fewer trees in their neighborhoods.

It’s not surprising those neighborhoods, where people are more likely to be essential workers and live in crowded housing, were hit harder by the pandemic, Hanel said.

“It’s a pattern that’s familiar to public health researchers in Denver,” he said.

One significant exception from the pattern is Boulder, which recorded large numbers of cases despite a relatively well-off population. That could reflect the outbreak at the University of Colorado Boulder, which infected more than 3,700 students and staff members, Hanel said.

The data comes from 11 large care providers, including hospitals and Kaiser Permanente Colorado’s outpatient clinics, which served about one in four people in the metro area, Hanel said. It only includes COVID-19 cases documented in medical records between April and December, so people who tested positive at a publicly run site and rode out any symptoms at home aren’t accounted for.

Still, even with the limitations, it shows which areas were affected more than others, he said.

Significant differences also show up in Weld, Adams and Arapahoe counties, with more affluent areas showing fewer cases, Hanel said. Jefferson and Douglas counties appear to have been relatively spared, though the lack of data from many parts of those counties makes it somewhat harder to draw conclusions.

“What we see here is COVID following socioeconomic patterns,” he said.

Vaccination clinics in the Westwood neighborhood have “maxed out” the available slots, but a significant number of people still aren’t protected, because the vaccines aren’t authorized for children younger than 12, Casey said. Couples in Westwood tend to have more children than in Denver as a whole, and it could be difficult to get them protected if funding for vaccination clinics starts to dry up, he said.

“I’m worried, because it’s not over,” he said.

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