York County's urban center hardest hit by COVID-19

Lindsey O'Laughlin
York Dispatch

Minorities and essential workers living in York County's more densely populated core have been disproportionately hit by COVID-19, according to an analysis of state data.

A significant number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in York County have occurred in two ZIP codes in particular, 17402 and 17401, which are heavily populated by Black and Latino residents, data from the state Department of Health shows.

But experts caution that the data is in its infancy, and the spread of COVID-19 will be ongoing for years.

Much of York City lies within ZIP code 17401. The area has had 1,620 COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began in early 2020, which equates to a cumulative rate of 9,474 cases per 100,000 people, the second highest in the county. Those cases accounted for 4.8% of the county's total case count as of Wednesday.

The ZIP code of 17,100 people includes much of York City's urban core and has a population that's 38% Black, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Some 35% of residents identify as Latino. 

As a whole, just 7.1% of York County residents are Black, and 8.1% identify as Latino. The median income in ZIP code 17401, $30,726, is less than half the countywide median income of $66,457.

Row homes are shown in York City, Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020. Dawn J. Sagert photo

The issues surrounding the spread of COVID-19 are complicated, local health experts said. Those living within ZIP codes such as 17401 tend to live in households with more people than the general population, and those family groups inhabit homes that are, on average, physically smaller than their suburban or rural counterparts.

They're also more likely to work blue collar jobs or those deemed "essential" under Gov. Tom Wolf's COVID-19 mandates, experts said.

Craig Walt, a community health program manager at the York City Bureau of Health, said his colleagues initially saw higher rates of infections among factory workers and other essential employees in York City.

"If you weren't an essential worker, your work-related interactions with other people were very limited, if at all," Walt said. "Those interactions with the public, or people that are outside your household, that equates to a higher risk of exposure."

Nearby, ZIP code 17402 has 38,078 residents and accounts for about 8.5% of the county's population. About 12% of people in that ZIP code are Black, and about 8% of residents there identify as Latino.

That area — which includes portions of Springettsbury Township, Windsor Township and York Township — has had 4,063 COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began, which, adjusted for population, is a rate of 10,670 cases per 100,000 people, the highest in York County.

But unlike the city, the median income for 17402 is $68,639, slightly above the countywide median of $66,457.

Walt cautioned against drawing conclusions based on cumulative case counts and case rates alone because overall totals don't tell the whole story about how the virus has moved through the community over time, he said.

Walt said it would be ideal to have a seven-day or 14-day rolling average of cases in each ZIP code, as well as the testing rate and positivity rate for each ZIP code in a specific time interval, to track the trends.

But there does seem to be a correlation between population density and COVID-19 case rates.

Rural areas of York County have fared much better than densely populated urban and suburban areas, regardless of the area's racial makeup, according to the state's data.

ZIP code 17352 has the lowest cumulative case rate in the county, at 3,116 cases per 100,000 people, but it also has the lowest population, with only 1,348 people. The median income there is $67,102.

Situated over portions of Fawn Township, Hopewell Township and East Hopewell Township in southern York County, the area is 99.7% white with no Black or Latino population, according to census data. 

About 12 miles away is ZIP code 17309, with only 2,162 people. It's the second least populated ZIP code in the county and has the fourth lowest case rate, at 4,533 cases per 100,000 people.

That area — which covers a portion of Chanceford Township along the Susquehanna River — is about 12% Black, a proportion similar to that of ZIP code 17402, the area with the county's greatest cumulative case rate. The median household income is $61,850.

The state Department of Health provides daily rolling averages of COVID-19 cases and deaths for each county, but at the ZIP code level, the only information available is the total number of cases.

Even so, Walt and his colleagues' observations about urban households and employment among minorities have been borne out in other cities across the country.

The Los Angeles Times has reported that poorer Latino neighborhoods in Los Angeles County have been more susceptible to the virus because of cramped living conditions and the fact that many Latino residents are considered essential workers, so they can't work from home to avoid exposure.

York City Mayor Michael Helfrich is surrounded by officials at a press conference announcing a declaration of disaster emergency due to the COVID-19 virus Thursday, March 12, 2020. He also announced that York's Saint Patrick's Day parade was cancelled due to the Coronavirus threat. Bill Kalina photo

Dr. Matt Howie, chief health strategist for York County, said population density had a lot to do with the outbreak among York City's Latino population in the early weeks of the pandemic.

At one point in April, Latinos accounted for 72% of York City's confirmed cases while making up only about 34% of the population, The York Dispatch reported.

But as more people in the general population have returned to work, density has become less of an issue than mobility, Howie said.

"The ability of people to go back to work and to move out and about in the community has become a significant source of spread in the community," Howie said.

It's important to note that because COVID-19 is still a new virus, public health officials are mostly speculating about how it behaves based on their observations and previous knowledge, Howie said.

With speculation, there's a risk of reinforcing assumptions rather than following the data, he said, and the data is limited right now.

"We’ll learn so much more when people with PhDs in epidemiology really dig into this and start parsing it out the way we need to parse it out to really understand it," Howie said.