EDMONTON -- In a bid to address disproportionately higher COVID-19 infection and death rates in low-income and racialized populations, California is now using a “health equity metric” to guide its economic reopening —a tactic experts believe may be useful in some Canadian cities.

Counties such as Los Angeles with a population of more than 106,000 will need to reduce virus transmission levels in their most vulnerable communities before moving into a less-restrictive phase of reopening.

Dubbed “A Blueprint for a Safer Economy,” the goal of the strategy isn’t just to reduce the number of cases overall, but bring the number of cases in the city’s most disadvantaged neighbourhoods in line with the county’s overall level.

“Most counties have significant differences in test positivity among more and less advantaged neighborhoods, with these differences often also overlapping with race and likelihood of employment as essential workers,” reads a California Department of Public Health briefing.

“Especially as counties move into less restrictive tiers with more movement, the importance of this differential prevalence of infection grows because mixing and opportunities for transmission increase. Therefore, it is imperative to reduce disease transmission in all communities to ensure California reopens its economy safely.”

The equity metric also ensures that counties meet certain test-positivity goals and invest in increased testing, contact tracing and education efforts.

It’s an effort that many say could benefit Canada’s COVID-19 response.

Health care data showing disproportionately higher rates of disease in Black, South Asian and Indigenous Canadians has also prompted calls to the federal government to track how the virus is affecting minority groups.

A study written by University of Toronto PhD student Shen Lin and recently published in the journal The Gerontologist, compared past health data from 1,102 racialized immigrants and 338 Indigenous Canadians with 23,802 white people born in Canada, ages 45 and up.

The study found that Indigenous Canadians were nearly twice as likely as white Canadians born in Canada to have three or more conditions linked to severe illness and hospitalization with COVID-19. Foreign-born Black Canadians were 1.79 times as likely to be in the same category.

But when he looked at those same three groups through an intersectional lens and focused on low-income individuals and those without a post-secondary education, the likelihood of having three or more pre-existing conditions spiked to nearly four times that of white Canadians.

Federal public health data available online tracks the age, gender, province and exposure setting of COVID-19 patients, but it does not track information like immigration status, income or racial background.

Canada's top public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam previously acknowledged there are a “number of gaps” in that data. However, the federal government has yet to move forward with calls to collect race and income-based data.

Some health units have already committed to gathering more detailed data, including Toronto's.

People of colour, who represent 52 per cent of Toronto’s population, account for 82 per cent of COVID-19 infections and 71 per cent of hospitalizations, according to Toronto Public Health’s latest data.

Half of the city’s infections are among people living in low income households, a group that represents 30 per cent of the city’s population.

Sixty-one per cent of people hospitalized with COVID-19 were living in households that could be considered low-income, according to the data.

In May, a collaboration between CTV News Montreal and the National Observer revealed COVID-19 hit lower-income boroughs in Montreal the hardest. Yet, after promising to release race-based COVID-19 data in the summer, Quebec officials changed their minds.

“It's sensitive data and some groups would explain that we are discriminating based on racial processes and everything,” Quebec's public health director Dr. Horacio Arruda said on Aug. 3.

On Monday, Toronto’s Board of Health unanimously approved a motion to develop a COVID-19 Response Equity Action Plan to address the disproportionate impact on marginalized people and communities in the city.

The board is calling for increased access to testing in high-transmission neighbourhoods and income supports and eviction prevention for low-income families, as well as lobbying both the provincial and federal governments to develop their own COVID-19 equity action plans.

"We aren't all equal when it comes to this pandemic. Whether you get COVID or not shouldn't depend on where you live, how much money you make, or the colour of your skin. But our data shows that it does," Toronto city councillor Joe Cressy said in a press release.

"If we're going to beat this second wave, all levels of government must do a better job protecting those who are most at risk.” 

- With files from CTV News' Graham Slaughter