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King County totals show communities of color face higher COVID-19 risks

Capitol Hill Station apartment and retail construction has kicked back into motion with crews OK’d to come back to work following a weeks-long shutdown to help slow the spread of COVID-19. You’ll see the workers, like the rest of us, wearing face coverings — and you’ll see that many if not most of the workers are Hispanic.

With the state’s economy in the early stages of reopening, service employees and construction crews are part of a first wave of workers helping Washington walk the precarious line of starting up its economy while also trying to stay healthy. But a report from Public Health shows the risk isn’t being equally shared. In King County, Hispanic people have died from COVID-19 at a rate 2.5 times higher than that of white people. Meanwhile, Hispanic, Black, and Pacific Islander groups also have been infected and hospitalized at higher rates.

“The updated analysis reinforces findings from other metropolitan areas and states across the United States. In King County, Public Health and community-facing task forces have been concerned since the beginning of this epidemic – that COVID-19 is exacerbating health inequities and is likely to take the biggest toll on communities already disadvantaged due to a long history of structural racism – ranging from housing policies to discrimination in health care, and more,” a report from the county on the findings reads.

And the problem grew as the number of cases in the county increased even as information about “social distancing” and “stay home” restrictions spread.

(Image: King County Public Health)

The county says the proportion of COVID-19 cases among its white population has decreased, while the proportion of cases among communities of color increased. “This trend is consistent with the evolution from many cases initially associated with skilled nursing facilities to more transmission and cases in the larger community,” the county analysis reads.

Researchers say the inequity shows up in the geographic distribution of COVID-19’s impact across the county with an “overlap” identified “between the census tracts with the highest equity score (less wealthy, more diverse) and census tracts with the highest case rates.”

The findings line up with measurements across the country showing similar disparities:

In Wisconsin’s Milwaukee County, all the people who had died as of March 27 were black; in Michigan as of April 2, black residents accounted for 40 percent of Covid-19 deaths, nearly triple their share of the state’s population. Similarly lopsided death or infection rates appeared in a number of cities, including New Orleans, Chicago, and Charlotte, North Carolina.

Here, researchers have also faced difficulties in gathering useful demographic information about those who have become sick or died. King County officials said the process of collecting the data varies by lab, often requiring local officials to gather the information in interviews.

King County researchers point out that socioeconomic and health factors underpin the terrible COVID-19 totals. “People with underlying health conditions including heart disease, diabetes, lung disease and severe obesity are considered at higher risk for COVID-19,” they write. “In the neighborhoods where many Black, Native and Indigenous people, and people of color live, there are less resources that contribute to positive health outcomes such as access to healthy, affordable foods and walkable neighborhoods.”

The county says “communities of color” are also more likely to live in multi-generational households where it can be more difficult to stop the virus from spreading.

In Washington’s early steps at reopening, another key factor will be the role people of color play in King County and Seattle’s economy where “a disproportionate number of people of color are essential workers” that make it possible “to keep society functioning,” the report reads.

None of these issues can be addressed in time to slow the outbreak — and, indeed, many could become even more firmly entrenched by its impact.

Health officials are trying to combat the virus with information and community, meeting with community groups and translating information into 32 different languages:

Materials organized by language

The county is also posting updated race and demographic data to a public dashboard to help track progress and identify new issues.

Increased testing and better contact tracing will also help every community stay health, officials say.


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