Follow the Numbers

Coronavirus Takes a Heavy Toll on Minority Communities, Oregon Data Shows

White people make up 69 percent of Multnomah County's population, but only 51 percent of coronavirus cases.

By Julia Silverman May 1, 2020

Seven weeks or so into the COVID-19 shutdowns in Oregon, public health officials are urgently highlighting data that throws into stark relief just who has been disproportionately affected by the virus: the state’s Black, Indigenous, and, especially, Latinx communities. 

Officials from Multnomah County on Thursday said about 40 percent of those who have tested positive for coronavirus are from communities of color. Another 51 percent are white, and the remainder are of unknown racial and ethnic backgrounds. (Removing those unknowns from the total, people of color make up about 44 percent and non-Hispanic whites make up about 56 percent of cases for which race and ethnicity have been reported.)

According to the US Census, 69 percent of Multnomah County residents are non-Hispanic white, a significant discrepancy. 

And the numbers are likely even higher, says Multnomah County Public Health Director Rachael Banks, because communities of color are less likely to have access to testing, and because data collection is incomplete. Better data is needed, and fast, she says, so that targeted help and outreach can fully kick into gear. 

“Health care systems, we need you to collect race and ethnicity data, for every lab, for every visit, for every individual walking into health care settings,” Banks says. 

Black, Indigenous, and Latinx community members are more likely to be essential workers, especially in health care and agriculture, and not able to telework and safely quarantine at home, says Dr. Zeenia Junkeer, executive director of the Oregon Health Equity Commission, and more likely to live in intergenerational housing in close quarters, making it easier for the disease to spread.  

And they are more likely to suffer from preexisting conditions that make for particular vulnerability to COVID-19, including cardiovascular problems, lung disease, and diabetes. 

The numbers are even starker in nearby Washington County, where the Latinx community makes up about 50 percent of confirmed cases, despite being only 16 percent of the population, and in Woodburn, outside of Salem, which is an enclave for farmworkers and their families. 

The Oregon Safety and Health Administration this week put out new rules for agriculture employees, with spring and summer picking season about to begin in earnest in the state. Among the rules: a six-foot buffer must be maintained between laborers, with someone on hand to enforce it, and a toilet and handwashing facilities must be provided for every 10 laborers. 

But the new rules quickly drew pushback from the Oregon Farm Bureau, with officials there saying that farm and ranch owners would have difficulty complying due to supply chain issues and a shortage of alternatives for rural housing, among other issues.  

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include the percentage of Multnomah County’s population reported by the US Census as “white alone, not Hispanic or Latino.”

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