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King County lacks data on how COVID-19 impacts communities of color

Around the country, the coronavirus pandemic is affecting African Americans at a much higher rate than other populations. But in Washington, the data is incomplete.

SEATTLE — Around the country, the coronavirus pandemic is affecting African Americans at a much higher rate than other populations, accounting for more cases and deaths.

In Washington, the data on racial demographics is incomplete: by quite a lot.

King County said it only has race and ethnicity data for 51 percent of its confirmed coronavirus cases. The public health crisis is shining a light on the trouble the state has when it comes to tracking this kind of information.

In King County, as of Friday, preliminary data showed Hispanics and Latinos make up 10 percent of the population, but more than 17 percent of confirmed coronavirus cases. The rate is also high among Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders.

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Gordon McHenry Jr., the president and CEO of United Way of King County, said it is the kind of data that helps his organization align its resources and deliver help where the greatest need exists.

A major challenge Public Health Seattle and King County faces is that virtually all coronavirus case reports come through laboratory reporting systems that do not have information on the patient's race and ethnicity. 

Washington State Department of Health attempts to contact those who test positive for coronavirus in order to do a case interview, but the state agency is not always able to reach everyone. 

Public Health recommends healthcare providers report race for all notifiable disease cases, however, there is an inconsistent collection of this data by healthcare providers, according to Public Health.

"It is a concern because we know from a lot of different sources, King County Public Health being one of them, that we have significant race and ethnic disparities in King County," said McHenry Jr.

He said for communities of color that can mean limited access to health care and poor health.

McHenry Jr. said, "there is a linkage to pre-existing conditions and living on low incomes, or being in and out of states of poverty." 

Washington State Board of Health is considering whether race and ethnicity data should be required for all notifiable disease cases. Public Health Seattle and King County support making it a requirement.

"I've learned it's best to ask people from the affected community, how do they feel about that situation? In general, we know that a lot of times, there is incomplete, inaccurate data, depending upon whether you approach it from ethnicity or do you approach it from the idea of race," said McHenry Jr. "It needs to be a bigger conversation and one we should have had a long time ago."

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