COVID-19 pandemic exposes healthcare inequities, Multnomah County leaders say
FILE - COVID-19 swab at a drive-through testing site (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Health experts say this pandemic has exposed inequities in our healthcare system and a lack of treatment afforded to many of the people having the most trouble with COVID-19.

In Oregon, the numbers show COVID-19 is disproportionately impacting BIPOC communities, and in Multnomah County, the data shows the some of the worst neighborhoods for infection rates are also some of the poorest and most diverse.

Health leaders see this as a two-part problem with a need to deal with the pandemic in the near-term and a need to address healthcare inequities in the long-term.

Beyond the hustle and bustle of the highways in east Multnomah County, many people living in the neighborhoods and communities are suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic. Data from the Oregon Health Authority shows people in many of those neighborhoods are getting infected at a much higher rate. People living in 97230, 97233, 97024 and 97236 are getting infected at two to three times the rate of the county average. Nearly a quarter of the county's cases are among people who live here.

“There’s hundreds of people that have been beating the drum saying the East County, Rockwood, need more resources,” said Multnomah County Commissioner Lori Stegmann.

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The data didn’t surprise Stegmann or the director for Multnomah County’s Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health program (REACH). Both pointed to the large percentage of people in these neighborhoods working frontline, essential jobs who are unable to work from home. 

“These are the individuals who have not been afforded the privilege of working from home. These are the ones that our economy and our systems depend on,” Charlene McGee,  Director of REACH, said. 

The REACH program is one of 31 across the country – funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – to address chronic disease disparities in black communities. It is one way the county is trying to bridge the gap in healthcare disparities.

“We know that those efforts benefit the community that are targeted and also have a ripple effect that benefits all, everyone within the county as well,” McGee said.

COVID-19 pandemic exposes healthcare inequities, Multnomah County leaders say (KATU video){{ }}

McGee and Stegmann said the outcomes are worse for people in these communities infected by COVID because many of them have not received proper preventative care, and many of them have pre-existing conditions that make them vulnerable to the virus.

“What the COVID pandemic has laid bare is the inequities that have always existed, but have just pronounced them sadly in such a way that it’s costing people’s lives,” said Stegmann. "When you look at poverty, we know that there are disparate health outcomes."

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Commissioner Stegmann said there is more the county can do. They've opened three testing sites in the area, and the commissioner said the county is also working on projects that will expand healthcare options for the future.

They're also targeting people with culture-specific messaging. The neighborhoods in east Multnomah County are among the most diverse in the region.

“I hope that this is a wake-up call,” Stegmann said. “When our friends and neighbors do well, guess what? Our whole community does well.”

Epidemiologists are quick to point out - the zip code data doesn't mean you are more or less safe depending on where you live. It just shows where infected people live, not necessarily where they got infected.

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