The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted quantifiable impacts of racism on human health in Island County, as it has across the nation.
An effort, however, by the Island County Board of Health to evaluate racism as a public health crisis was complicated when a volunteer board tasked with exploring the issue decided to go on hiatus.
Theresa Sanders, Island County’s assessment and healthy communities director, presented a report to the Island County Board of Health this week that shows African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and Native Hawaiians or Pacific Islanders are disproportionately impacted by the virus. Statistics show that these populations are all at more than twice the risk of contracting the virus than white people.
Despite this, state statistics show that people of color are less likely to be vaccinated.
In contrast to being the “great equalizer,” Sanders told the board, the pandemic has been the “great revealer” when it comes to the impacts of systemic racism.
Although information about ethnicity wasn’t gathered in all COVID-19 cases, the county’s statistics show a significant disparity between white people and other races. While 85 percent of the population is white, only 78 percent of the cases were of white people.
Blacks make up just 3 percent of the population but 6 percent of the cases. Latinos make up 7 percent of the population and 16 percent of the cases. Native Americans make up 2 percent of cases and Pacific Islanders were 3 percent, while each group makes up only 1 percent of the population. Moreover, Sanders said the number of cases among people of color are likely underreported.
Sanders also stressed that there’s no evidence that people of color have any physical or genetic factors that make them at greater risk of contracting the virus, although the trauma caused by racism but may have a health impact.
“In reality it is systemic racism and the inequities in the health care system and being exposed to racism that is causing those problems,” she said.
She gave access of jobs as an example of how systemic racism impacts health. In general terms, minorities don’t have the level of intergenerational wealth and educational opportunities that leads to jobs with health care, one of the most important factors in public health.
A fledgling effort to address the health and racism issue in Island County, however, was delayed when the volunteer, appointed members of the Community Health Advisory Board, known as the CHAB, last month unilaterally decided to go on hiatus for six months just as the Board of Health tasked them with evaluating a draft ordinance and gathering public input for a discussion about racism as a public health crisis.
Fe Mischo, a member of CHAB, addressed the Board of Health, saying that the group should continue its work. She noted the serious inequity in vaccine distribution and said the advisory board has largely been “kept on the shelf” during the pandemic.
“Our community health advisory board can play a role in developing a comprehensive solution as we have deep roots in our community,” she said, adding that two key elements to confronting the problem is a dedication to providing the necessary support and timely reporting about who is getting the vaccine.
Public Health Director Keith Higman explained that the CHAB’s decision to go on hiatus was made because of several factors, including the difficulty in staffing the meeting. Commissioner Janet St. Clair added that two key members of the board aren’t able to participate in the meetings until June and nobody stepped up to fill their roles.
Island County Commissioner Jill Johnson, however, was upset to learn that Public Health leadership had allowed this to happen and didn’t alert the Board of Health earlier. She pointed out that volunteers don’t have the authority to close down a board, even temporarily, and that county officials were counting on them to do important work.
“I guess I’m just discouraged and frustrated to hear that we would disband our community advisory group in the middle of a pandemic,” she said. “If we don’t need their input and feedback now, we don’t need it.”
Island County’s CHAB is the longest standing board of its kind in the state. The county lists 17 current members.
St. Clair said she had been aware of CHAB’s action and pointed out that it had also been inactive during much of 2020. Higman said the group has met a number of times to learn and discuss the racism issue; he said Public Health officials had planned on bringing the resolution back to the board of commissioners.
St. Clair said a conversation about the CHAB should be brought back to the county commissioners for consideration.