It was a stubborn record during the pandemic: COVID-19 cases, hospital admissions, and death rates are generally higher in color communities than among white Washingtoners, according to the state’s Department of Health.
Proponents say public outreach remains important and vaccination rates are improving among Latinos in Washington.
The state has been researching discrepancies in age-adjusted rates of COVID cases, hospital admissions, and deaths due to racial and ethnic groups since the beginning of the pandemic, reporting twice a month.
In the South Central region of Washington, which includes Yakima, Klickitat, Benton, Franklin, Walla Walla, and Columbia, the COVID case rate for Latinos was roughly twice that for whites, according to a report released Nov. 17.
Nationwide, Hispanics comprise 13% of the population. They accounted for 26% of COVID cases and 19% of hospital admissions, according to DOH. American Indians and Native Americans make up 2% of the cases across the state and make up 1% of the population. Asians make up 6% of the cases and 9% of the population.
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Latinos, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders had the highest rates of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths nationwide. These three categories were also higher among blacks and indigenous parishioners than whites. Asians had lower case numbers but higher hospital admissions and death rates than whites.
Information on race and ethnic categories was not available in around half of the cases examined and hospital admissions. Approximately 44% of the cases in the South Central region did not contain ethnicity information.
Dori Peralta Baker, a member of the Asian Pacific Islander Coalition of Yakima Valley, said in an email that the role of Asian and Pacific islanders as key workers in the food and healthcare industries has likely contributed to high case numbers.
Dr. Leo Morales, a doctor and co-director of the Latino Center for Health at the University of Washington, said many potential factors could contribute to the relatively higher COVID rates for Latinos.
Whether a person can work from home is a factor. Morales said Washington’s stay-at-home orders had little impact on the rate of COVID cases among Latinos at the start of the pandemic, with many working in person.
“In fact, COVID rates (for Latinos) only started falling after they finished Stay at Home,” he said.
The number of people living in a household was also a factor. Morales said that there are more broadcast opportunities in a multigenerational household, which is more common in the Latino community.
Access to health care also likely played a role in the relatively higher death rate among Latinos.
“Part of that, as we know, is maintenance delays,” he said. “Some of them are pre-existing conditions that are not known or treated.”
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Underlying diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, or kidney or liver disease can complicate COVID.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, racial and ethnic minorities are at increased risk of developing or dying from COVID due to systemic inequalities in health care. Members of these groups also die from the virus at a younger age.
“We need to understand that COVID is showing us what happens when communities are not well served,” Morales said.
There have been some positive trends regarding the health of Latinos recently.
A recent policy report from the Latino Center for Health found that vaccination rates are improving among Latinos in Washington. Nationwide, the vaccination rate among Latinos 12 and over was 54.6% at the end of September, compared with 40.5% in July.
The report showed that 53.3% of Latinos over 12 years old in Yakima County were fully vaccinated by the end of September.
With the release of the pediatric COVID vaccine for children ages 5-11, Morales said vaccination rates could fall into similar patterns as those for adults. Those with more time, resources, and a better understanding of the health system are likely to purchase a dose for their children sooner.
Morales said one of the most effective solutions is through community organizations working to reach people without reliable access to health care.
“There definitely needs to be an ongoing partnership with community-based organizations that are not necessarily healthcare providers,” he said.
Local groups around the Yakima Valley have worked to disseminate both credible information and needed supplies to communities during the pandemic.
The Yakima Valley’s Coalition of Asia-Pacific Islanders has been focusing on COVID education during the pandemic, said Paul Tabayoyon, the group’s public relations coordinator.
The coalition also distributed personal protective equipment to schools, small businesses, and other community organizations, which it believed were funded through grants.
Local groups helped each other during the pandemic to understand the needs of different communities.
“And that’s what we really tried to do with our other BIPOC community organizations like the NAACP (and) La Casa Hogar,” said Tabayoyon. BIPOC stands for Black, Indigenous and People of Color.
He said the coalition has often focused on the needs of the local Latino community during the pandemic. This included using grant funds to print COVID information in Spanish.
Morales said language inclusivity is crucial when it comes to the spread of COVID.
La Casa Hogar and Nuestra Casa have also made similar efforts throughout the pandemic, handing out PPE and emergency funds.
In the Yakama Nation, recent vaccination efforts include both stationary and mobile clinics.
As of Thursday, the Yakama nation had 2,381 cases of COVID-19, including 253 breakthrough cases and 60 deaths.