One of the grimmest truths of the COVID-19 pandemic is how communities of color have disproportionately suffered the most severe consequences, with higher levels of infection, hospitalization and death.

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In Clark County Washington, the Latinx community makes up 10% of the population but nearly 28% of confirmed coronavirus cases.

Last week, the Clark County Council — which doubles as the county board of health — passed a resolution naming one culprit for the disparity:

They declared racism a public health crisis.

The statement represents both a renewed commitment to fighting systemic racism in the county and a practical attempt to gain more resources to fight COVID-19. Still, some voices in the county government appear lukewarm on the measure.

Opening the door

Temple Lentz is a Clark County councilor representing the west Vancouver area. She spearheaded the measure, hoping it will kickstart a focus on health equity in the county.

What this really does is it opens the door to doing more of this work,” Lentz said. “It gives quote-unquote-permission for our public health department to pursue this work more vigorously and seriously.”

Ed Hamilton Rosales is president of the Southwest Washington League of United Latin American Citizens. He wrote a letter to the county council in July asking for the resolution. He said its passage last week immediately gave validity to the healthcare disparities members of the Latinx community have suffered since Washington’s earliest coronavirus cases.

“At the beginning of the pandemic it was presumed ‘Oh, you just go get your test done, and you get taken care of,’” Hamilton Rosales said. “As easy and as simple as that is, it’s not that simple within our communities of color for multiple reasons.”

Still, he views it as a first step.

“Do I think it’s the end-all? Absolutely not,” he said

Lentz agrees: “I wish that I could wave a magic wand and say that with this resolution passed, we now have equity,” he said. “But it’s going to take a lot of hard work for us to get there.”

Sharpening the lens

Hamilton Rosales said communities of color have faced significant challenges accessing testing, wrap-around services and even fundamental information about the pandemic.

“Questions like ‘If I want to have a test done, where do I go?’” Hamilton Rosales said. “‘Who’s going to offer that test? How long is it going to take to get the results?’ And most significantly in some cases, ‘Will they speak my language of choice?’”

He said the challenges are compounded for people who lack insurance.

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“Do you have health insurance? No? then how much is it going to cost and what happens afterward?” he said.

Even if they’re able to receive testing, Hamilton Rosales said many members of the Latinx community also lack the support necessary to safely quarantine. He said it’s been an unsolvable paradox for many Latinx people, “who, regardless of what you tell me, have to go to work because that’s the only way I can feed my family.”

Lentz said she expects the health crisis declaration will allow the county to find additional resources to help solve all of these questions.

“We have found that funders who support programs that address these issues in our community are more likely to fund at higher levels organizations/agencies that have made statements like these,” she said.

She said that prioritizing a focus on the intersection of health and systemic racism has a more subtle benefit as well: the council and the county health department are simply noticing things they’d overlooked before.

“We can use this lens to look at everything we’re doing and say are we hitting all the marks we need to hit to make sure we’re providing our service and access equitably,” she said.

County officials have already noticed that testing for people who are under-insured is much more difficult than initially anticipated. She hopes more problems like this will be discovered — and corrected — in the months ahead.

Inconsistent support from elected leaders

This isn’t the first time Clark County has examined the role of systemic racism in 2020: the county passed another resolution condemning it in June. But there hasn’t been unanimous support for these declarations either.

Councilor Gary Medvigy and Council Chair Eileen Quiring were both absent from last week’s vote on the health crisis resolution. And earlier this summer, Quiring dismissed the existence of systemic racism during an exchange related to a controversial decision to outfit country patrol vehicles with flag decals associated with the slogan “Blue Lives Matter.”

“I do not agree that we have systemic racism in our county. Period,” Quiring said.

“I think the majority of county leadership is taking the problem of systemic racism seriously,” Lentz said. “I can’t speak to why my colleagues didn’t attend the meeting, I don’t know why they didn’t attend the meeting.”

OPB has reached out to Quiring to ask why she didn’t attend this week’s vote but she has not responded.

Hamilton Rosales said that, despite Quiring’s earlier comments, he’s happy with the support the resolution has received so far.

“The Department of Health is on board with everything; the state is on board with everything,” he said. “As long as the resolution is there and we can continue the conversation, I’m happy that we’re going to be moving forward.”

The next threat: complacency

Hamilton Rosales said the next big challenge is to keep the community informed, engaged and vigilant. He worries that positive news about COVID-19 vaccines could lead some members of the community to let their guard down.

His organization is working with PeaceHealth and the Clark County Health Department to develop videos and infographics in Spanish with the latest recommendations.

“To say yes, we hopefully have a vaccine coming, we don’t know much about it, and here’s what you need to know about it that we do know,” he said. “And it requires that once you get the vaccine, you still need to know your mask,” he adds.

Still, Hamilton Rosales said the resolution is a sign that, after a long, hard year, things are moving in the right direction: “We’re going to be spreading the word from now until whenever we don’t need to anymore.”

Listen to Ed Hamilton Rosales’s full conversation with OPB Weekend Edition host John Notarianni using the audio player at the top of this story.

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