In summary

COVID-19’s disparate effects are shown in the data of its death toll. New York’s death rate is 25 times as high as California’s.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a horrible human tragedy whose global toll is continuing to rise, but it’s also an exercise in collecting and examining data for clues to how it is spreading.

The numbers change minute-by-minute but suggest that in America your chances of being infected may depend on where you stand on the economic ladder, how closely you live and work in the company of others, and how diligently you and your neighbors take precautions.

Take, for example, the startling contrast between what’s been happening in New York and its neighboring states versus what’s been happening, or not happening, in California.

As of Tuesday, according to the New York Times, the nation had counted 37,818 COVID-19 deaths, but New York alone had 14,347 or 38% of the national total, and adding New Jersey (4,377), Pennsylvania (1,366) and Connecticut (1,331) brought the region’s share to nearly 57%.

Three-thousand miles away in California, with twice the population of New York, COVID-19 had claimed just 1,225 lives — tragic for those Californians’ families, of course, but a blessing for the state as a whole. In fact, at just 3 deaths per 100,000 of population, California has had one of the nation’s lowest mortality rates to date while New York’s 74 per 100,000 is 25 times as high.

Why the huge difference?

Someday we’ll have a complete scientific answer, but clearly the high densities of living, working and traveling (often on crowded subway trains and buses) in New York City and environs have contributed to the heavy human toll, as did New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s footdragging on imposing precautions.

Most Californians, meanwhile, live in low-density neighborhoods, either in single-family homes or small rental complexes. Californians are often mocked for preferring cars to mass transit, but it’s probably saved thousands of lives.

California also instituted some of the nation’s earliest shelter-at-home measures to limit person-to-person contact and Californians, most of us anyway, have been diligent about adhering to them.

Within the state, too, one finds very disparate conditions. California’s hot spot is Los Angeles County, which has a quarter of the state’s population but has accounted for more than half of its COVID-19 deaths.

While California’s death rate is 3 per 100,000 Los Angeles County’s is twice as high at 6, by far the state’s highest.

Why Los Angeles County?

Most Angelenos, unlike New Yorkers, live in low-rise homes and apartments. However, past studies have told us that because of poverty and a chronic lack of affordable housing, two or even three families may live in one housing unit and that auxiliary units, such as illegally converted garages, are common in poor neighborhoods. It’s difficult to practice social distancing in such crowded circumstances, making infection more likely.

Moreover, Los Angeles County has the state’s highest rate of poverty, according to the Public Policy Institute of California, with at least 40% of its population rated as poor or near-poor. The pandemic-induced recession has hit Los Angeles County particularly hard, with an estimated 50% of its jobs at least temporarily erased.

On Monday, Los Angeles County health officials released preliminary results of a study suggesting that roughly 4.1% of the county’s adult population has already had the coronavirus, which translates to between 221,000 and 442,000 people, many times the number of confirmed cases.

That study indicates that the pandemic potentially has a long way to run and that Los Angeles will continue to be its California epicenter. The data also imply that we shouldn’t be eagerly pushing Californians to live in high-density housing, give up their cars and ride transit.

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Dan Walters has been a journalist for more than 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times...