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COVID-19

News >  Spokane

COVID-19 rates aren’t higher in Spokane County communities of color. That may reflect testing inequities.

UPDATED: Thu., April 16, 2020

“We know, like every other infection, like every other chronic disease, disproportionately people of color are impacted,” Spokane Regional Health District Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz said Thursday. Lutz is shown at press conference on March 16, 2020 at the Spokane Regional Health District building. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
“We know, like every other infection, like every other chronic disease, disproportionately people of color are impacted,” Spokane Regional Health District Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz said Thursday. Lutz is shown at press conference on March 16, 2020 at the Spokane Regional Health District building. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
By Arielle Dreher and Jared Brown The Spokesman-Review

Spokane County’s COVID-19 infection rates among communities of color don’t show the disproportionality that Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz expected.

“It may be a reflection of how we’re testing,” Lutz told Black Lens News columnist Kiantha Duncan during a Facebook Live interview meant to inform Spokane’s Black community.

Lutz said he asked public health district staff to provide a breakdown of infections by race after meeting with Spokane NAACP President Kurtis Robinson during the weekend.

“We know, like every other infection, like every other chronic disease, disproportionately people of color are impacted,” Lutz said.

Data from Wednesday showed about 9%, or 27 cases, of Spokane County’s 286 cases at the time were Hispanic residents, while five Asian residents and two Black residents had contracted the disease. More than 77% of cases were non-Hispanic white residents.

Close to 6% of Spokane County’s population is of Hispanic or Latino descent, according to U.S. Census Data. An estimated 2% of the population is African American and about 2.4% is Asian.

Two Native American residents, two Pacific Islander residents and one person reporting multiple races had also contracted the disease as of Wednesday, according to health district data. Nearly 9%, or 25 cases, were reported in people of unknown race.

“My guess is that the numbers that we have of the Latino and African American communities do not adequately reflect the burden of infection in those communities because people have not been tested,” Lutz said.

To be tested, people have to go to a health care provider or the drive-thru screening site at the county fairgrounds, Lutz said. And the reason more people from communities of color aren’t tested may be due to a lack of resources or access to health care.

“We have created a society that does not provide equal access and equal resources to everyone,” Lutz said. “And as a result, populations who are impacted the most are the ones who have the least.”

Lutz said he expects statewide data doesn’t accurately reflect disproportions in testing either.

Across Washington, numbers show about a quarter of the state’s approximately 11,000 cases are in Hispanic residents, who make up about 13% of the state’s overall population, according to the state health department. About 10% of cases are Asian residents and 6% are Black residents, which are rates more reflective of the overall population.

About 55% of case are white residents, who make up about 68% of the state’s overall population, according to the state health department. But approximately 42% of cases statewide do not have a reported race or ethnicity.

Lutz said he wants to use the data from this pandemic to better understand how leaders can respond during a similar crisis and address inequalities.

“I certainly believe that there will be other events such as this,” Lutz said. “I want to learn from this. I don’t want us to reinvent wheels, and I don’t want us to try to relearn mistakes.”

In Spokane County, the hospitalization and transmission rates are decreasing, Lutz said during a morning news conference.

On Thursday, Spokane County confirmed seven new cases for a total of 293, with 16 people currently hospitalized. The death toll remained at 17.

Despite a slowing in the virus’ local spread, Lutz said other factors also are considered for when and how to reopen parts of society.

“Before we can loosen up on physical distancing, we need to be confident that the curve of COVID-19 is not at risk of rebounding,” Lutz said.

He said the decisions will be driven by several metrics that health officials will look at to determine slowly easing mitigation efforts. Lutz likens it to opening a door slowly in case there’s a monster on the other side, in an effort to “be prepared to slam it shut” instead of swinging it wide open and inviting the spread of the virus into the community.

Hundreds of thousands of Washingtonians have applied for unemployment benefits through the state, and this coming week, more residents will qualify due to the rollout of additional funds from the CARES Act. The Employment Security Department plans to roll out its website for applications this weekend, available by Sunday. Commissioner Suzi Levine said that many people who previously applied for unemployment benefits but did not qualify, like independent contractors, will now qualify.

“We know there will be a tsunami of demand for this,” Levine said on a media call Thursday.

With so many Washington residents losing work, the demand for food at local food banks and pantries has gone up. Locally, donations to food banks are way down, leaders said Thursday. Theyasked for people to donate money to the Washington Food Fund to help organizations like Second Harvest help get food to families in need throughout the region, instead of donating food.

“We’re responding to the current surge, evaluating how this is becoming the new normal, and preparing for people who will seek assistance,” Drew Meuer, vice president at Second Harvest, said.

Community leaders asked that for those who cannot give funds to possibly volunteer at local food distribution sites by going to volunteerspokane.org.

People who need access to food can fill out an online form or call the Spokane 311 line or (509) 755-2489 for people living outside city limits.

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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