Why Is South King County Dealing With Higher Numbers of COVID-19 Cases Compared to Rest of County?

by Elizabeth Turnbull

While COVID-19 cases have increased in King County since the beginning of the month overall, South King County, one of the most diverse parts of the Seattle area, has recorded disproportionate numbers of cases.

Whereas 3.2% of all tests in King County come back positive for the novel coronavirus, simply looking at the map of positive tests in the county on King County’s Daily COVID-19 Outbreak Summary webpage (you must choose the “Geography tab” in the dashboard to view the map) will show you that these numbers increase the more you travel south. For example, overall positivity rates in Auburn stand at 8.4% and of individuals tested at the Auburn testing site at 2701 C Sreet Southwest, 12.8% of tests have come back positive since Sept. 1, according to a Seattle Times article.

Addressing disproportionately high rates of COVID-19 in South King County is not as simple as tracking down one or two specific outbreaks. Instead, health and equity officials with Public Health — Seattle & King County believe the rise in cases in South King County is due to the existing health crisis of racism and social determinants of health such as income and environment, among others.

Through Oct. 25, the age-adjusted rate of the 26,512 total confirmed cases of COVID-19 in King County stood at roughly 1,190 cases of the virus per 100,000 residents. This rate increases substantially for Communities of Color.

For Native Hawaiians or Pacific Islanders in King County, there were roughly 3,040 confirmed cases of the virus per 100,000 people, roughly 2,770 per 100,000 among Hispanic residents, 1,758 per 100,000 among Black residents, and 982 cases per 100,000 people for Native Americans and Alaska Natives — all as of Oct. 25, according to King County data.

This racial disparity in positive cases is also apparent in South King County areas. In Auburn, the rate for Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander residents is 6,845 per 100,000 residents and 3,795 per 100,0000 residents among Hispanic individuals. The lowest rate of positive cases in Auburn is among white people, at 790 per 100,000, according to data found in the Seattle Times article. 

Overall, the highest percentage of positive cases are in areas such as Auburn at 12.8%, Federal Way at 8.3%, SeaTac at 7.9%, and Kent at 7.7%, according to information cited in the same piece. 

Black and Native American residents often have less access to walkable neighborhoods and less access to affordable healthy foods. This can lead to higher instances of chronic health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, lung disease, and obesity, which puts such individuals of color at a higher risk for COVID-19, according to King County data. 

In addition, a greater number of People of Color work as essential workers in grocery stores, restaurants, transportation, and other important occupations which pose a particularly dangerous risk during this time. People of Color are also more likely to live in multi-generational households, which makes social distancing practices more difficult in case of infection.

Obstacles also exist for individuals whose arrival to the U.S. was undocumented, as they may be unable to stay home from work and social distance due to an inability to qualify for federal stimulus aid.

While some residents of South King County got access to COVID-19 testing later than in other areas of Seattle, individuals within Public Health say they are currently in the process of distributing over $500,000 to reduce the novel coronavirus’ racial health inequities through engagement and education and that they are specifically focused on meeting the needs of BIPOC residents in South King County.

In addition, Public Health is working on new income supports for people who may have challenges quarantining and isolating due to economic hardship, which will be implemented soon. 

Elizabeth Turnbull is a Seattle-based journalist. 

Featured image: Rainier Beach COVID-19 Testing Site, by Carolyn Bick.

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