WASHINGTON (CN) — As the U.S. death toll passed 100,000 on Wednesday, public health experts told a House panel that the federal government must do more to help communities of color ravaged by Covid-19.
Nearly 1.7 million Americans have been infected with the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and the grim death milestone was reached as lawmakers on the House Ways and Means Committee met Wednesday afternoon.
While the numbers are hard to fathom, arguably harder to grasp is the way minority communities are disproportionately impacted by the virus, said Chairman Richard Neal, a Massachusetts Democrat.
“It has shown a light on our country’s centuries-old legacy of inequality,” he remarked.
A study by researchers at Yale University published on May 11 found, among several other racial inequities, that black Americans are currently dying at roughly three-and-a-half times the rate of their white counterparts.
Ibram Kendi, director of American University’s Antiracist Research and Policy Center, told lawmakers data from his organization compiled five days ago confirms what has been reported about racial disparities since the pandemic began.
In 35 of 42 states where coronavirus death data is broken down by race, black Americans die more often, he said. In five of six U.S. counties with the highest mortality rates, it is black men and women who make up the largest share of the dead.
In New Mexico, where Native Americans comprise just 9% of the population, they represent an “unspeakable” 61% of all confirmed Covid-19 cases in the state, according to Kendi.
Latinos across the board aren’t faring much better: the Antiracist Research and Policy Center, which gathers its data in conjunction with the Covid Tracking Project, found case rates in 11 states are double their population share. In seven states, Latino cases triple their share of the population. In five states, it is quadruple, and in Iowa and Wisconsin, the Latino case rate is five times their population size.
“This is a racial pandemic within the viral pandemic,” Kendi said.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, compared to whites, people of color more often work jobs with regular exposure to others, including jobs in transportation, food or manufacturing services.
When the pandemic began, those same workers were pushed to the front lines and deemed essential even though they did not have sufficient protections. This created a “perfect storm” for minorities who already had less access to medical care than their wealthier white neighbors, Kendi testified Wednesday.
“People of color want freedom. I’m not talking about the freedom to get a haircut. I’m talking about the most fundamental freedoms that have been denied for far too long: the freedom from infection, the freedom from death,” he said.
Thomas Dean Sequist, professor of medicine and health care policy at Harvard Medical School, told the House panel the federal government would do well to engage in a two-tiered approach to addressing racial disparities.
First, according to Sequist, the federal government must address short-term issues like expanding access to personal protective equipment for essential workers. This would be a boon to communities like the Navajo Nation, which has been hit particularly hard, he said.
The second part is long term and involves greater federal investment in initiatives to diversify the health care worker pipeline.
“Many Indian health services have ventilators but not the people experienced with using them,” Sequist said.
If the government took “drastic steps” to increase the number of Native American workers who enter the medical field, for example, he said that could make a difference toward establishing an infrastructure where a community’s unique needs are met and trust is formed.
Economic opportunity is equally important, Sequist stressed, noting that the poverty rate in Navajo Nation is roughly 42%, with unemployment upwards of 40%.
“That is the kind of scenario where you cannot promote health and wellness to the degree you need to,” he said.
Raynald Samoa, an endocrinologist who contracted and later recovered from Covid-19, told lawmakers the situation for Pacific Islanders in America is desperately uneven.
Samoa, who spearheads the Pacific Islander Covid-19 Response Team, said native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders have the highest rate of confirmed Covid-19 cases in California as well as in Washington state’s King County and Nevada’s Clark County.
They have the second-highest case rates in Utah, Oregon, Arkansas and Colorado, he said. In Los Angeles, the Pacific Islander death rate is 12 times higher than it is for whites, seven times higher than for Latinos and five times higher than for African Americans.
A lack of public guidance integrating a wide array of languages native to the Pacific Islander community is likely what added to the high rates of infection and death, Samoa said.
A vaccine and contract tracing will be essential to lifting minority communities out of the pandemic, he added. But that is one of the more difficult challenges, since it requires trust.
James Hildreth, president and CEO of Meharry Medical College in Nashville, told lawmakers one way to build that trust is to engage communities with direct representation.
Asking the House Ways and Means Committee to consider funding a $5 billion consortium of historical black medical schools to lead the charge on Covid-19 testing and tracing, Hildreth explained how vital it would be to put these entities in charge of assisting minority communities.
“Contact tracing requires an element of trust. You have to call for information and ask them to divulge personal information. If the contact tracer is not someone who is trusted in those communities, there is a challenge there,” he said. “Cultural competence and cultural sensitivity will be just as important in contact tracing as in medical care.”