It’s been a stubborn data set during the pandemic: Rates of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths are generally higher in communities of color than among white Washingtonians, according to the state Department of Health.
Advocates say outreach efforts remain important, and vaccination rates among Latinos in Washington are improving.
The state has looked at discrepancies in the age-adjusted rates of COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths based on racial and ethnic groups since the start of the pandemic, with reports issued twice a month.
In the South Central region of Washington, which includes Yakima, Klickitat, Benton, Franklin, Walla Walla and Columbia counties, the COVID case rate for Latinos was about double the rate for whites, according to a report issued Nov. 17.
Statewide, Hispanics comprise 13% of the population. They’ve accounted for 26% of COVID cases and 19% of hospitalizations, according to DOH. Native Americans and Alaska Natives make up 2% of cases statewide and are 1% of the population. Asians make up 6% of cases and 9% of the population.
Statewide, Latinos, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders had the highest rates of cases, hospitalizations and deaths. Those three categories also were higher among Black and Indigenous community members than among whites. Asians had lower case rates, but higher hospitalization and death rates than whites.
Information on racial and ethnic categories was not available in about half of the total cases and hospitalizations the report examined. About 44% of the cases in the South Central region didn’t have information on ethnicity.
Dori Peralta Baker, a member of the Asian Pacific Islander Coalition of Yakima Valley, said in an email that Asian and Pacific Islanders’ roles as essential workers in the food processing industry and in the health care field likely contributed to high case rates.
Dr. Leo Morales, a physician and co-director of the Latino Center for Health at the University of Washington, said that many potential factors could contribute to the relatively higher COVID rates for Latinos.
Whether a person can work from home is one factor. Morales said Washington’s stay-at-home order earlier on in the pandemic had little effect on the rate of COVID cases among Latinos because many were working in person.
“In fact, COVID rates didn’t start to come down (for Latinos) until after they ended Stay at Home,” he said.
The number of people living in one household was also a contributing factor. Morales said that in a multigenerational household, which are more common in the Latino community, there are more opportunities for transmission.
Accessibility to health care also likely played a role in the relatively higher mortality rate for Latinos.
“Part of it is, we know, delays in seeking care,” he said. “Part of it is having preexisting conditions that are not known or treated.”
Underlying conditions like diabetes, heart conditions, or kidney or liver disease can complicate COVID.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, racial and ethnic minorities have showcased an increased risk of contracting or dying from COVID due to systemic inequalities in health care. Members of these groups are also dying at younger ages from the virus.
“We have to understand that COVID is showing us what happens when communities are not well served,” Morales said.
There have been some positive recent trends regarding Latino health.
A recent policy report from the Latino Center for Health found that vaccination rates among Latinos in Washington are improving. Statewide, the vaccination rate among Latinos 12 and up was 54.6% as of late September compared to 40.5% in July.
The report showed 53.3% of Latinos over the age of 12 in Yakima County were fully vaccinated as of late September.
With the release of the pediatric COVID vaccine for children ages 5 to 11, Morales said the rates for vaccination could fall into similar patterns as the rates for adult vaccinations. Those with more time, resources, and a better understanding of the health care system are likely to acquire a dose for their children sooner.
Morales said that one of the most effective solutions is the work that community organizations have done to reach people without reliable access to health care.
“There just definitely needs to be ongoing partnership with community based organizations that are not necessarily health care providers,” he said.
Local groups around the Yakima Valley have worked to spread both credible information and needed supplies to communities throughout the pandemic.
The Asian Pacific Islander Coalition of Yakima Valley has focused on COVID education during the pandemic, said Paul Tabayoyon, community outreach coordinator for the group.
The coalition also distributed personal protective equipment to schools, small businesses and other community organizations, which he said grants helped fund.
Local groups have helped each other out during the pandemic to understand the needs of different communities.
“And that’s what we’ve really tried to do, is to partner with our other BIPOC community organizations such as the NAACP (and) La Casa Hogar,” Tabayoyon said. BIPOC stands for Black, Indigenous and people of color.
He said that the coalition has often focused on the needs of the local Latino community during the pandemic. That included using grant money to print COVID information in Spanish.
Morales said that language inclusivity is critical when it comes to COVID outreach.
The Latino Community Fund also has done work to spread accurate COVID information in the Spanish-speaking community, holding forums. The group distributed masks and made emergency rent relief available to families.
La Casa Hogar and Nuestra Casa also have engaged in similar outreach efforts throughout the pandemic, distributing PPE and emergency funds.
On the Yakama Nation, recent vaccination efforts include both standing and mobile clinics.
As of Thursday, the Yakama Nation has had 2,381 cases of COVID-19, including 253 breakthrough cases and 60 deaths.