Systemic racism is exacerbating the public health crisis in non-white communities.
Systemic racism is exacerbating the public health crisis in non-white communities. JOHN MOORE / GETTY IMAGES

Similar to trends that are cropping up across the nation, King County Public Health has found that COVID-19 is disproportionately wreaking havoc on communities of color.

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There are over 6,200 COVID-19 cases and more than 440 deaths in King County. The rate of confirmed cases is twice as high in Black people as it is in white people. It's four times as high for Hispanic people and native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, according to new data analysis King County Public Health announced in a press conference on Friday.

The worst part is that it's unsurprising. Systemic racism? Bad for public health? Who'd've guessed? Well, it turns out everyone. While the data is new, it mirrors trends that the public health community had always been aware of.

"No one should be surprised that we’re seeing these disparities in the COVID-19 disease," Dr. Jeff Duchin a health officer with King County Public Health said. "It’s been an ongoing tragedy and a shame that we have communities of color suffering adverse disproportional health impacts that have been widely recognized and tolerated for such a long time and not just with COVID-19."

At the beginning of the crisis, more white people were getting infected as the COVID-19 spread in longterm care facilities which were disproportionately white. Once it started spreading in the community, that's when the number of cases in communities of color started increasing, Matias Valenzuela, equity director for King County Public Health explained.

"When this first started," Valenzuela said, "I knew this was going to be devastating on the local and national scale. These are things that have been built into our system."

The current pandemic is simply exposing the disparities that have always existed. Low-income minority communities often have underlying health conditions that are exacerbated by societal issues like access to healthcare, good-paying jobs, good schools, space to exercise, and more, Valenzuela explained. A lot of people of color are frontline workers who are more risk-prone as they report to work every day. There's a "higher proportion of Hispanic ethnicity people in these frontline essential worker categories," Duchin said.

Both Duchin and Valenzuela pointed out how timely it was to be talking about the risks essential workers are exposing themselves to on May Day.

There's a lack of information and a lack of testing in the areas of King County that have been hit hardest. Those areas that have been hit hardest are in South Seattle, South King County, "very north King County and pockets of the northeast side," Valenzuela said.

It's especially challenging for undocumented immigrants who are not eligible to receive stimulus money which will make it "harder to physically distance and stay home," Valenzuela said. Additionally, Valenzuela explained, undocumented people are likely to wait longer after they develop symptoms to go to the doctor and may wait "until it's too late."

King County Public Health has only just started getting this kind of data since Washington State Board of Health doesn't require race and ethnicity data to be reported, Duchin said. "A significant chunk of data still remains unknown," he said.

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In the meantime, the way to combat this is the same refrain we've been hearing: more testing, more personal protective equipment, and more information.

The subject of reopening the state came up. Duchin said that "one of the preconditions for reopening has always been" widespread access to testing. That still isn't happening. Case numbers have remained stable but they have not dropped. Duchin would like to see those numbers drop before the state considers reopening.

"There are too many cases happening right now for us to be relaxing our distancing," Duchin said. Gov. Jay Inslee is expected to announce updates to the state's social distancing measures on Friday afternoon.