Understanding COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on communities of color

Assemblywomen Angelica Jimenez and Shavonda Sumter have proposed a task force to study the impact

A woman rides a bus to work amid the pandemic, by Shutterstock.
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A woman rides a bus to work amid the pandemic, by Shutterstock.

As New Jersey continues Phase 2 of reopening amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the pandemic of police brutality and systemic racism is ongoing, taking a heavy toll on communities of color.

Demonstrations across the country against the police killing of George Floyd have shone a light on a number of other instances of systemic racism outside police departments, such as in healthcare.

Lawmakers, including Assemblywoman Angelica Jimenez (D-Hudson, Bergen), are looking to address racial and health disparities made apparent by both pandemics.

COVID-19 disproportionately affects minorities

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), current data suggests there is a disproportionate burden of illness and death from COVID-19 among racial and ethnic minority groups.

A recent CDC report included race and ethnicity data from 580 patients hospitalized with lab-confirmed COVID-19.

The study found that 45 percent of individuals for whom race or ethnicity data was available were white, compared to 59 percent of individuals in the “surrounding community.” However, 33 percent of hospitalized patients were black, compared to 18 percent “in the community,” and 8 percent were Hispanic, compared to 14 percent “in the community.”

This data suggests an over-representation of black people among hospitalized patients.

COVID-19 death data from New York City presents  similar findings.

According to the CDC, the city identified death rates among black people to be at 92.3 deaths per 100,000. The death rate for Hispanic people is 74.3 deaths per 100,00.

Among the lowest death rates were white people at 45.2 deaths per 100,000, and Asian people with 34.5 deaths.

Additional studies are underway to further confirm the data and potentially reduce the impact of COVID-19 on the health of racial and ethnic minorities, the CDC said.

The CDC said that health differences between racial and ethnic groups and whites are often due to economic and social conditions that are more common among some racial and ethnic minorities than among whites.

In public health emergencies, these conditions can isolate people from the needed resources to prepare for and respond to outbreaks.

Addressing racial and health disparities

Legislation to establish a task force to examine racial and health disparities related to the coronavirus was approved June 23 by the Assembly Health Committee.

The bill, sponsored by Assembly Democrats Angelica Jimenez (D-Hudson)and Shavonda Sumter (D-Bergen, Passaic), would create a 21-member Coronavirus Disease Pandemic Task Force on Racial and Health Disparities in the New Jersey Department of Health.

The group would conduct a comprehensive study of how the pandemic has affected minority and vulnerable communities in New Jersey, as well as the short- and long-term consequences for these communities.

“Long before the COVID-19 pandemic began, people of color faced enormous disparities in our healthcare system,” said Assemblywoman Sumter. “African-American and Latino mothers saw higher mortality rates. A disproportionate number of minority families lacked access to health insurance and care.”

Now communities of color are being impacted by COVID-19 at an alarming rate, according to Sumter.

“We need to understand how and why these disparities are happening, and what we can do to mitigate the harm this pandemic has caused,” she said.

The pandemic’s toll on communities of color

Assemblywoman Jimenez said the task force will help get a clearer picture of the extent of the pandemic’s toll on these communities, and continue efforts to promote health equity.

“This public health crisis has exacerbated deep inequities across New Jersey, particularly racial health disparities,” Jimenez said. “Communities of color have shouldered a large burden in this pandemic, and will undoubtedly need unique assistance to recover.”

The task force will be charged with improving existing data systems to ensure race, ethnicity, and demographic information is included in data on COVID-19 infections and deaths.

It will evaluate access to and quality of treatment delivered to various racial and ethnic populations, and develop strategies to address and reduce racial, ethnic, and health disparities and systemic inequalities that have amplified the COVID-19 death rate among minority and vulnerable communities.

The task force will hold three public hearings, either in-person or remotely, as appropriate, in the northern, central, and southern regions of the state to hear testimony from community members on their experiences during the pandemic.

It will evaluate communications, messages, and modes of dissemination regarding testing, contact tracing, and other related public health matters to achieve health care equity and cultural competence. It will also assess the impact of COVID-19 on mental and physical health of essential workers, access to childcare services, and the prevalence of intimate partner violence, among other issues.

Task force appointees

The task force would include the Chief Diversity Officer of New Jersey, a representative of the Department of Community Affairs, a representative of the Department of Human Services, a representative of the Department of Children and Families, a representative of the Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, a representative from the Office of Emergency Management, a representative of the Maternal and Child Health Consortia, a representative of the New Jersey Urban Mayor’s Association, a representative of a federally qualified health center, as well as other appointees specified by the legislation.

The task force would include a representative of the Department of Health whose duties include expanding access by minority populations to clinically appropriate healthcare services or eliminating discrimination in the implementation of healthcare programs, policies, or initiatives.

The legislation includes two members of the state Senate on the task force, one from the New Jersey Black Legislative Caucus, and one from the New Jersey Latino Caucus, appointed by the Senate President.

The task force would include two members of the General Assembly, one from the New Jersey Black Legislative Caucus, and one from the New Jersey Latino Caucus, appointed by the Assembly Speaker.

Ten public members will be appointed by the governor, including a representative of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.

Medical representation

The task force would include a physician licensed to practice in this state who specializes in providing care to patients in the state’s minority and vulnerable communities.

The legislation calls for a representative of a general hospital, and nurse on the task force, licensed to practice in this state who specializes in providing care to patients in the state’s minority and vulnerable communities and who may be a school nurse.

The task force would include three representatives of three nonprofit organizations that conduct research, education, and training on, and develop policy initiatives to address health equity in this state.

After clearing committee, the bill goes to the Assembly Speaker for further consideration.

For updates on this and other stories, check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Daniel Israel can be reached at disrael@hudsonreporter.com.