Here and elsewhere, minorities bear brunt of COVID-19 crisis

The Snohomish Health District reviewed 1,118 cases and found the highest incidence among Hispanics.

EVERETT — The coronavirus crisis has hit Snohomish County’s people of color harder than white residents, data from the local health district suggest.

Case rates among Hispanics and Pacific Islanders were more than double that of white or Asian people, the Snohomish Health District found when epidemiologists reviewed roughly half of some 2,400 cases the district has logged.

Incidence was highest among Hispanic people, with about 207 cases per 100,000 people, and lowest among white people, with around 85 cases per 100,000 people.

Case rates per 100,000 people were as follows for other racial and ethnic groups: about 197 for native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders; 165 for American Indians and Alaska natives; 157 for African Americans and 93 for people with Asian heritage.

The health district’s analysis comes as figures from cities and states across the country have illustrated the pandemic’s disproportionate toll on the health of minorities. And local public health officials are echoing national experts when explaining the disparities, saying they are probably rooted in other societal inequities.

People who are racial minorities are more likely to have jobs that are considered essential, leading to a greater risk of exposure, according to the health district.

Many “essential” jobs don’t offer the same work-from-home flexibility that office jobs do, said Janice Greene, president of the Snohomish County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

“A lot of these so-called essential job classes are low-paying, and they’re without protective equipment,” Greene said, adding that the people of color who often work in those positions “don’t have much of a choice.”

“It’s either they go to work or they don’t get paid; they don’t have a job. It’s a no-win situation,” she said.

Underlying medical problems, such as diabetes or high blood pressure, are also more prevalent among people of color, according to the health district. Those issues can intensify disease and, in some cases, lead to a greater likelihood that someone would be tested for coronavirus.

Research has repeatedly shown that people who are victims of racism and discrimination live with stress that fuels some of those health issues, Greene said. Institutional discrimination within the health care system also compounds those problems, she said.

“There’s underlying conditions to the underlying conditions,” Greene said.

COVID-19 hospitalizations were approximately 50% to 75% higher among Latino people than white or Asian people, Dr. Chris Spitters, the district’s health officer, said during a recent media briefing. Death rates among Latinos, though, did not appear relatively high, according to the health district.

“Among other non-Asian racial minorities, the number of hospitalizations and deaths were too small to draw any firm conclusions, although the observed data showed no suggestion of higher hospitalization or death rates in those groups,” the district’s website says.

Snohomish County’s population is nearly 70% white, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Hispanic or Latino people make up another 10%, and Asian people account for almost 12%. Nearly 4% of the population is black. About 5% is multiracial. The rest consists of relatively small proportions of American Indians, Alaska natives, native Hawaiians and Pacific Islander people.

Jacque Julien, executive director of the local non-profit Communities of Color Coalition, said she wasn’t surprised by the disparities. The health district data adds to a trend of inequities that has long plagued people of color, she said.

“Until we acknowledge that racism is a public health crisis, we’re going to continue to have the same conversation,” Julien said. “The larger question for me is, ‘What are we willing to do about it?’ We know these things exist.”

The health district has translated several bulletins, which include guidance on how to protect yourself from COVID-19 and what to do if you’re exposed, into Spanish and five other languages, said district spokeswoman Kari Bray. The district has posted those materials on its website and shared them with schools, cities, parks, medical facilities and other organizations to distribute, Bray said.

“There is more we would like to do moving forward to ensure critical information is shared far and wide in Snohomish County, and we will continue to work on identifying additional materials and partners in the community who can help with that outreach,” Bray said.

Public health officials in neighboring King County have also found that case rates appear highest among Hispanic and Latino people, as well as native Hawaiians or Pacific islanders. However, Public Health–Seattle & King County only has data for about half of confirmed cases, says a recent report from the agency.

Washington also doesn’t have a clear picture of how COVID-19 is affecting different groups statewide because race and ethnicity data are missing in nearly 40% of all cases, according to the state Department of Health.

“Based on the available data at this time, it does not appear we have the same stark inequities in deaths experienced in other parts of the country,” state Secretary of Health John Wiesman said in a statement this month. “However, we are still working to get race and ethnicity data for a third of the deaths, so we can’t draw firm conclusions quite yet.”

Greene said she hopes the pandemic gives way to honest discussions about why racial and ethnic minorities face barriers that others don’t.

“There’s other conversations that we need to have about the conditions,” she said, “and why it is that people of color are so disproportionately impacted by this virus.”

Rachel Riley: 425-339-3465; Twitter: @rachel_m_riley.

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