PORTLAND — Multnomah County health officials acknowledged Tuesday that they are still working to rebuild relationships with refugee and immigrant community leaders to try to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
People of color continue to be disproportionally affected by COVID-19 in Multnomah County, and public health officials first said earlier in June that they were concerned about recent upticks of cases in immigrant and refugee groups.
Multnomah County partnered with a number of organizations to translate information and to try to track the spread of the virus. But much of that work had to start from the ground up.
Jennifer Vines, Multnomah County’s health officer, said the county put concentrated efforts into the same type of relationship building during the H1N1 pandemic a decade ago, but a lack of funding meant the relationships weren’t sustained.
“Some of that work ended up succumbing to shrinking budgets,” Vines said. “This is a renewed lesson about having these relationships, not just ahead of relationships — but in an ongoing way.”
Vines and others addressed the rise in cases among refugee communities at a press conference Tuesday. Multnomah County officials did not disclose the numbers of cases linked to specific communities. They also did not say exactly how many contact tracers that they have brought on board so far to work with each community.
Latino communities are still extremely overrepresented in coronavirus cases, representing 35 percent of all positive cases in Multnomah County despite only making up 11 percent of the population.
Kim Toevs, the county’s communicable disease director, said officials also became concerned in May about increasing cases in the Pacific Islander community. Data from the Oregon Health Authority show Pacific Islanders have 118 cases per 10,000 people — more than three times the rate of any other ethnic group in the state.
Multnomah County has seen growing cases in other immigrant populations, specifically within African and South Asian refugee groups, Toevs said.
Statewide, officials have forecasted an “exponential growth” in cases by the middle of July. Toevs attributed the rise in cases to people expanding their social circles too much, too fast.
County officials and community advocates listed a number of reasons why immigrants and refugees specifically are more affected by COVID-19.
Most speak English as a second language, making it harder to access and understand resources and guidelines. Many live in close quarters, in multi-generational and multi-family homes. Many are essential workers. Some don’t have access to the internet. Refugees often have underlying health conditions from the time they spent in refugee camps overseas and still live in poverty.
Toevs said immigrants and refugees often experience trauma from previous, and current, governments, leading to a sense of mistrust.
Manu Malo Ala’ilima, a member of the Pacific Islander Coalition, said she’s worked with families who are reluctant to share information about their household size because they were worried about getting in trouble.
Djimet Dogo, the associate director at the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization and director of IRCO’s Africa House, said there’s a stigma among some communities about testing positive for COVID-19. Some people don’t feel comfortable with sharing that they’re positive with the rest of the community, Dogo said.
County officials said they are working to address the outbreak in community-specific ways.