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COVID-19 impacts people of color 'significantly' more in Multnomah County

County officials and cultural leaders say immigrant and refugee communities are disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

MULTNOMAH COUNTY, Ore. — County health officials say people of color are disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Multnomah County data show since April, coronavirus cases among Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) have outpaced cases among white people.

The most recent data from the week of June 14 showed of the 313 cases reported to the county, 216 were BIPOC, 68 were white and 29 were unknown.

Credit: Multnomah County

On Tuesday, county health officials joined leaders from cultural groups to explain how communities are being reached during the pandemic.

Kim Toevs, the county's communicable disease director, said refugee and immigrant communities are particularly at risk.

The county gave several reasons.

First, many immigrants and refugees tend to work in essential jobs with more risk of person-to-person exposure, such as at food processing plants.

Second, many in those groups live close together in multi-generational or multi-family households. If someone gets sick at work, others in the home are likely to be exposed as well.

When someone tests positive for COVID-19, Toevs said the county has resources to help people isolate and quarantine in motels, away from tight family quarters.

Multnomah County has also given funding to groups to help with translation and bridging cultural gaps.

"Some refugees are illiterate in their own language," explained Djimet Dogo of the Immigrant and Refugee Communitee Organization Africa House. "You may give them materials written in their own language they may not be able to read ... So what we're doing is doing an audio translation on WhatsApp."

In other cases, IRCO is delivering PPE protection, such as masks.

The other challenge is reaching people who don't have internet access to evolving information.

Manumalo Ala'ilima with the Pacific Islander Coalition said in some cases, cultural consultants are reaching out to faith organizations that have a more direct connection to people.

Ala'ilima said more needs to be done to reach immigrant workers who may not know their rights about workplace protections and sick leave.

"It's okay for them to rest," Ala'ilima said.

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With case numbers and the positive testing rate continuing to rise in Oregon, Multnomah County health officer Dr. Jennifer Vines stressed the need for prevention ahead of the July 4th holiday weekend.

"We are very concerned about the pace of that increase," Vines said. "Without a vaccine, without reliable treatment, with a virus that spreads very easily ... the safest thing you can do is stay home. In general, outdoor gatherings are safer than indoor, and the fewer people the better. Absolutely everyone should be wearing face coverings."

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