Rep. Suzan DelBene

Rep. Suzan DelBene talked about healthcare disparities and COVID-19 response at a July 9 virtual town hall.

DelBene represents Washington state's 1st Congressional District, which includes some parts of Arlington, the Sisco Heights area and the Getchell hill area. 

DelBene was joined by Paj Nandi, director of community relations and equity with the Washington State Department of Health, and Christy Curwick Hoff, the manager of the state's Interagency Council of Health Disparities.

Officials at the town hall said that the coronavirus pandemic is a much larger disaster than anyone expected to face.

"We haven't had this kind of pandemic in more than 100 years across the globe," said Nandi. "Our health system has truly been stretched to meet the community need.”

In recent weeks coronavirus cases have increased throughout the state.

"We're up to 37,941 cases of COVID-19 in the state," said Hoff on July 9. That includes 1,394 deaths. 

Snohomish, King, Pierce and Skagit counties received most of the initial outbreak, but are doing better than the rest of the state now, said Hoff.

"That's different from where we started," she said.

The statewide average coronavirus rate is 102 cases per 100,000 people. Hoff said that Snohomish County is now at 57.2 per 100,000 people.

That is better than some eastern Washington counties which are currently going through outbreaks and have rates of 300 to 700 cases per 100,000 people.

"Although we still definitely have it in the Puget Sound area," said Hoff.

Increases in cases are more likely to fall onto minority groups.

"In King, Snohomish and Skagit counties we see Latinos are catching the disease at the highest rates," said DelBene. "In Whatcom County, Native Americans are the likeliest to become infected.”

Differences in healthcare received along racial lines is not a new concern.

"We've known about the longstanding disparities in healthcare for communities of color before COVID-19, but this disease makes this issue painfully clear," said DelBene. "There is a saying that 'when America catches a cold, Black America catches pneumonia,' and I think with this outbreak we've seen those disparities are greater than ever.”

The current data shows Latinos and Black Americans as two of the hardest hit groups.

"Latinos and Black Americans are three times as likely to catch COVID-19 as their neighbors, and they're also twice as likely to die from the disease," said DelBene.

"This is alarming for many reasons and no one should look at this as if it doesn't affect them," she said.

Hoff said these outcomes are the result of systemic racism, not race.

"Racism has caused the structural differential of opportunity in our state and in the country," she said.

Housing segregation, healthcare opportunities and other historical factors are putting minority groups at risk more often. 

"The different types of workplaces that people of color have. They may not have jobs that are able to telework and that puts them at risk," said Hoff.

The Department of Health has been in contact with Native American representatives, said Nandi.

"We have a tribal liaison we work with on a daily basis to make sure that everything we do is happening in a culturally sensitive matter and respecting tribal sovereignty," he said.

The state government has been working with the tribes, Nandi said.

"We've heard that as long as we share the data for them, reach out to them, they know what's best for them," he said.

DelBene hopes that a coronavirus relief bill, known as the HEROES Act, which passed in the House of Representatives but has not been heard yet in the Senate, can help address some of the health disparities.

"Over 130,000 people across the country have lost their lives and cases are spiking across the country and here in Washington," she said.

The bill includes hazard pay for workers and a $75 billion investment into testing and contact tracing.

She recognizes that schools reopening or remaining closed this fall will also have a big impact for families.

"There's a great societal cost from having schools closed," she said. "We have so many parents and caregivers with jobs that they struggle to do because there's no childcare."

Internet access is also an issue of equity as poorer families do not always have the same ability.

"In our region we have some areas where there is great connectivity and access and other areas where there is not that much access," said DelBene. "There are some big disparities there.”

Finally, Nandi recognized that mental health is a big issue for many during this time, and said that the Department of Health has been focused on moving out campaigns to support those in need of emotional help.

"We've moved into mental health and suicide prevention messaging," he said.  "We know it's had a significant emotional impact on people. There are cascading impacts related to job loss or not being able to pay rent or your mortgage, and other financial and economic concerns.”

With social isolation and family burdens it has been tough on many and he said the Department of Health hopes to support those in need.

The state began a 'Washington Listens' line on July 6, which is not a crisis line, but is meant to help those who need to be connected to local mental health resources.

That line is at 1-833-681-0211 and is available 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. TTY and language access services are available by using 7-1-1 or their preferred method.

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