July 10, 2020

Public health experts briefed the Board of County Commissioners on Thursday, July 9, on COVID-19’s impacts on Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) communities in the weeks following Multnomah County’s Phase 1 reopening

Since the onset of the pandemic, Multnomah County leaders have prioritized communities of color in the County’s response and reopening plan. Before reopening, the County established its own enhanced criteria, including additional testing access and capacity, hiring a diverse group of contact tracers, and partnerships with BIPOC-serving community-based organizations.

“BIPOC communities must not only be heard but centered in how we take on dismantling the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on the BIPOC community,” said Dr. Aileen Duldulao, senior epidemiologist with the Multnomah County Health Department. “Making sure those most impacted by COVID-19 are the ones... not only telling the story but the ones looking at the data, understanding the data, and making sure that the narrative that goes along with the data is a narrative that is also strength-based and tells the story that we want it to.”

According to COVID-19 testing data, particularly as cases increase in Multnomah County, disparities in hospitalizations, positive test results and deaths are growing for communities of color. Moreover, BIPOC community members are expected to make up almost half of those staying in County-run motels where people with COVID-19 can isolate while recovering from symptoms. 

At the heart of the virus’ disproportionate impact on communities of color, the panelists said, are decades of structural health inequities and historical trauma. By investing in a diverse health workforce, the County aims to build trust and relationships with those most heavily impacted by the pandemic. 

“We know that communities of color are more likely to experience severe symptoms stemming from centuries of historical disparities,” said Taylor Pinsent, a County epidemiologist. “We need to look into why that’s happening and where those exposures are happening so we can adjust our response.”

The County is partnering with 15 community-based organizations to ensure a robust public health response that better represents the county as a whole. A variety of organizations serving the BIPOC, immigrant and refugee, and faith communities are conducting culturally specific outreach and engagement, isolation and quarantine assistance, and education. The County is also hiring a large pool of diverse contact tracers, sorting through a group of more than 1,600 people applicants. 

“The primary reason is to be able to speak directly to the community and have someone who speaks the same language talk with them about the case investigation and understand the cultural things that might impact their family situation or the things that will help them stay home,” said Lisa Ferguson, the County’s Communicable Disease Services manager.

In one example, Ferguson said, a father of two children with severe asthma tested positive for COVID-19. With nowhere else to safely quarantine and prevent his children from contracting the virus, he worked with contact tracers so he could stay at a County isolation motel. 

Originally, the County offered isolation motels as a resource for residents experiencing homelessness. As the pandemic has continued, people in permanent homes who don’t have a safe place to isolate, away from other members of their households, have been able to come to the motels. That means they’ve served a growing number of BIPOC, older and disabled adults, and people with underlying medical conditions.

“We have begun to see a wider range of referrals,” said Patricia Rojas, deputy director of the Joint Office of Homeless Services. “It varies week by week, but we’ve seen anywhere from 20 percent to 60 percent of the guests at any given time who are not experiencing homelessness.”

Commissioners affirmed the importance of significant investments in a diverse public health response centering BIPOC communities. “We are leading with race in this rich and authentic way that I am very, very proud of,” Commissioner Susheela Jayapal said.

“In order to treat this equitably, it means that we have to invest even more in the communities most impacted by this,” Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson said. “And even in doing this, we are seeing disparate impacts on BIPOC communities in Multnomah County.”