An Auburn road designated as a volcano evacuation route currently leads to a site set up to deal with a more immediate disaster.

At the end of C Street SW, where Mount Rainier peeks over the hills to the east, is a COVID-19 testing site at the sprawling U.S. General Services Administration location. Since Sept. 1, the site has been testing anyone for free regardless of their immigration status and whether they have health insurance.

Public Health – Seattle & King County, UW Medicine and the Valley Regional Fire Authority opened the site in an effort to increase testing for a population that has been disproportionately affected by SARS-CoV-2 compared to the county at large.

Countywide, 3.2% of all tests have come back positive. At the Auburn site, the positivity rate for all tests is 12.8% and the overall number for the city along the Pierce County line is 8.4%.

The stubbornly high numbers were addressed by Gov. Jay Inslee in July when he met with officials in Federal Way. Despite the governor highlighting the problem in South King County, infections continued to spread.

The problem is particularly pronounced in communities of color that have long dealt with poorer health outcomes and have sizable populations in the area.

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Public health data shows the disparity in how SARS-CoV-2 and the disease it causes, COVID-19, has moved through the county’s communities of color: The age-adjusted rate for the 26,512 infections in King County as of Oct. 27 is 1,190.9 cases per 100,000 residents. That number skyrockets for Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders to 3,040 and 2,770 for Hispanics. The rate is 1,758.1 for Black people and 982 for American Indians/Alaska Natives.

These stark numbers persist on the city level. In Auburn, the rate per 100,000 residents for Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders is 6,845. The number is followed by 3,795 for Auburn’s Hispanic community. The lowest number in Auburn is for white people, at 790 per 100,000.

The total percentages of people testing positive are similar in cities throughout South King County. Auburn has the highest percentage at 12.8%, followed by Federal Way at 8.3%, SeaTac at 7.9% and Kent at 7.7%.

Results at the Auburn site are returned in about 48 hours, and the location can test about 1,000 people a day but has been getting about 500 a day. Public Health runs a number of other free testing sites across the county.

Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus was getting a test at the site on Wednesday to highlight the importance of testing as a tool to help lower the rate of infection in her city and South King County.

“I’m here today to show you how easy it is,” she said before getting in her white Chevy Tahoe for her drive-thru test. “You might save the life of a loved one if you take this test.”

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Backus said there are a lot of people in Auburn and South King County working essential jobs and that the number of people using public transportation has been increasing. She believes these factors have contributed to the high percentage of people testing positive south of Seattle and the Eastside.

Access to free testing is vital for a city like Auburn, with 29% of residents having incomes below 200% of the Federal Poverty Line and 12% of people between the ages of 18 and 64 lacking health insurance, said Sharon Bogan, a spokesperson for Public Health – Seattle & King County.

Dr. Julian Perez, a family physician at the Sea Mar clinic in White Center sees a lot of immigrants and refugees who live in South King County at his practice. He said the disparities between South King County, Seattle and the Eastside makes sense given the types of jobs people work in the different areas.

“The people who have the means to work from home are going to be able to do that. They’re going to get this wrapped up pretty quickly, and that is what has happened,” Perez said. “South King County is where they cannot do that long term.”

He said many of the people he works with are in jobs that don’t allow them to work from home and live in tight quarters with extended family. That acts as a built-in support system and a resource, yet also increases their chances of exposure.

South King County’s struggles with lowering the infection rate coincide with rising numbers across Washington and the nation. The state Department of Health announced Wednesday afternoon another 716 cases of COVID-19 statewide and 16 more deaths. King County recorded 196 new infections and three deaths since Tuesday. The state’s total number of cases now stands at 104,743 and King County is at 26,789 cases.

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