May 2: Learning and responding to how communities of color experience COVID-19

April 21, 2020

For the most up-to-date information about Multnomah County's COVID-19 response, please check our COVID-19 website, and the County’s Twitter and Facebook channels, often. You can also contact my office if you have any other questions.

Dear friends and neighbors,

In the nearly six weeks since Gov. Kate Brown issued the statewide “Stay Home, Save Lives” order, people across our community have worked hard to stay home, physically distance, and slow the spread of COVID-19.

Screenshot of regional COVID-19 data dashboard
Though this public health emergency touches every part of our community, we are also learning that some groups of people — particularly communities of color — are experiencing more exposure to the virus and more serious illness if they do become sick. That data is playing out across the country, as people of color work in essential public-facing jobs, and are in communities with higher rates of chronic disease because of historic healthcare inequities. 

For weeks, Multnomah County has published a dashboard on what the virus is doing locally, based on information pulled from lab test results and interviews with people who are ill. For the first time, this week, Multnomah County was also able to include racial and ethnic data in a regional dashboard that includes Washington, Clackamas and Yamhill counties.

It also marked a turning point in that the Health Department released this data to Black, Indigenous and People of Color community members first — before the dashboard was published. Part of my learning has been to recognize that data collected about communities of color often lacks context, is misrepresented and may actually create more harm for communities already experiencing health inequities.

So I’m pleased the Oregon Health Equity Alliance, Coalition of Communities of Color, Native Wellness Institute and culturally specific leads in Multnomah County Public Health worked to advise our County public health leaders and epidemiologists on how to share this data, what to prioritize and how data is represented. That kind of collaboration builds trust and paves the way for community-centered strategies to respond to this pandemic.

Having meaningful and complete data is critical to the County’s commitment to inclusively lead with race when making decisions and allocating resources in our daily work and during this pandemic.

We now know that we have a dramatic gap in data around testing because so few labs record racial and ethnic data. So we’re asking all providers to ask every patient how they identify and include it when ordering tests.

The dashboard tells us that people of color experience more severe illness because of underlying health conditions. Toward that end, we’re redoubling our efforts to make sure that community members with chronic diseases can see a provider and take care of their underlying conditions. We are ensuring people who enroll in our clinics and have symptoms can get a COVID-19 test, regardless of insurance. Our County clinics are accepting patients now at 503-988-5558.

We’re also ensuring that community members are weighing in on issues around reopening. The challenges are real when people don’t have the option to telework, or when they live in multigenerational households where it is harder to self-quarantine.

Deciding how our community begins to reopen is a profound challenge. But the conversations have to go beyond when to reopen businesses and public spaces, or who receives how much aid. It has to also be about how to keep people healthy and stable until a vaccine is found.

Our community’s recovery doesn’t have to mean going back to what was. In fact, it should be a recovery that moves us towards a new place of strength, health and hope across our community. It is not my role to decide what the future should look like, but it is within my ability to make more room for and listen to voices of color and ensure that our community’s next steps are also steps towards greater justice and belonging.


Deborah Kafoury
Multnomah County Chair

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