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State Task Force Grapples With COVID-19 Health Disparities

African Americans are about 30 percent of Cuyahoga County's population but are more than 45 percent of COVID patients in the intensive care units in local hospitals.[Rohane Hamilton / shutterstock]
[Rohane Hamilton / shutterstock]

Health officials are concerned because African Americans are getting sick from COVID-19 at higher rates than other racial and ethnic groups. Data released by the Cuyahoga County Board of Health shows African Americans are about 30 percent of the county’s population but are 33 percent of confirmed cases, nearly 38 percent of hospitalizations and more than 45 percent of COVID-19 patients in the intensive care units in local hospitals as of May 1.

Summit County health officials have released similar numbers and statewide data is just as troubling. In response, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine created a minority task force to examine the disproportionate number of African Americans with the coronavirus. Ideastream’s Marlene Harris-Taylor spoke with Morning Edition host Amy Eddings about the task force and how members will address this issue.

Do health officials have any ideas or theories on why the coronavirus is hitting the black community so hard?

There are many reasons, some rooted in the past and very much tied to what’s known as “structural racism”, which is all the past and present structures and policies in place that perpetuate inequity. Research has shown for years that African Americans suffer disproportionally from health conditions which make you vulnerable to this virus, things like, obesity, asthma and diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But many African Americans are also in service positions — not sheltering at home. They are driving buses, working as store clerks and in hospitals cleaning rooms. So, it’s a combination of historical inequities, lifestyle choices and economic status, all tied together.

Who on this task force and what are their plans to address the issue?

Alisha Nelson, director of the governor’s RecoveryOhio initiative, leads the task force that includes people from the faith community, business leaders, government officials and health equity experts.

The committee has met a couple of times, she said.

“And we’ve really talked about, what do we need to focus on right now to address the immediate needs and listen to the data and what the data is telling us. Especially now as we are start to restart our state, what are some tactics that we can put in place to make sure that the spread doesn’t impact any one minority or group,” Nelson said.

The committee is fairly new but do they have any plans yet?

The initial focus is on reinforcing messaging on how to stay safe during this pandemic, to the people who can’t stay at home, Nelson said.

“We recommend that you must wear a mask or some kind of face covering, while also maintaining safe social distancing, washing your hands frequently. We believe these things will stop the spread for folks who can’t stay at home and have to be our essential workers, either working in our health care industry, law enforcement groups or our food distributors,” she said.

The group does not have any specifics yet on how they are going to target this message specifically to the African American community.

This is a big committee with some 40 or so members – are there are some from Northeast Ohio?

Yes. Ohio Representative Emilia Strong Sykes (D), from Akron, June Taylor, chief of performance and quality initiatives at the Western Reserve Area Agency on Aging, and Cleveland business leader Andrew Jackson, president and CEO of Elson's International.

But one local health equity expert, Dr. David Miller from Case Western Reserve University’s Mandel School, says the makeup of the committee is concerning because there are more politicians and business people than researchers and medical professionals. He says the racial data being collected is not complete and the committee should focus on that.

“We don’t need politicians – we need researchers. We need people who are on the ground who have worked with patients, who are looking at how to stem the disease, or to assist those people who are essential worker i.e. custodial workers who are keeping the lights on at the clinic,” Miller said.

“There are community individuals who are on the grassroots who could help this committee with the messaging. If the individuals on the committee don’t know anything about the individuals who are being affected by the disease, it’s just window dressing,” he said.

It’s already a large committee, are they thinking of expanding it?

The committee reached out to another Northeast Ohioan, just last week and invited him to join, said Cleveland State University professor Ronnie Dunn.

Dunn, who is an urban and social policy expert, attended his first virtual meeting with the group last Thursday. This pandemic may be a window of opportunity to truly address health disparities in minority communities, he said.

“This pandemic has magnified these disparities and the inequities that exist, and now more people are being subjected to that. If you think about these low-income service workers, we are relying on them for essential services. Yet we didn’t want to give them a living wage, and now universal health is imperative at a time like this,” said Dunn.

“Society is definitely going to be transformed coming out of this, whether it’s a more equitable and egalitarian society - that is the hope,” he said.

That’s a big goal, but what is the goal of this task force specifically? What do they hope to achieve?

Nelson, the chair, said if they are successful in keeping Ohioans safe and reducing the spread and number of cases of COVID-19 down, she would consider that a success. She would also like to learn from the event and make sure everyone has access to healthcare in the future.

The professors I spoke to, however, are hoping to see bigger outcomes from the committee and the state. Ideally, they would like to see more resources directed to local communities to truly address some of these historic problems that have helped to create health disparities in minority communities.


Marlene Harris-Taylor
Marlene is the director of engaged journalism at Ideastream Public Media.