When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S., essential workers were identified to keep critical services running, while many others followed stay-at-home orders, began telecommuting, and practiced social distancing in an effort to flatten the curve. Even today as the number of cases continues to rise, these essential workers continue to experience heightened exposure to this potentially deadly threat. Positions such as grocery store employees, gas station attendants, retail workers and custodial and environmental services staff—these positions, so many of whom are held by Black Americans and other minorities —do not allow for telecommuting, and many of these individuals have to work. They simply cannot afford to stay home.
Early on in the pandemic, in communities like St. Louis, Missouri, it did not go unnoticed that Black Americans were dying in disproportionate numbers. Pre-existing conditions that increase the severity of the coronavirus are also disproportionately prevalent in the Black American community. These conditions include diabetes, hypertension, heart conditions, obesity, and asthma. As of April 9, more than 40 percent of COVID-19 deaths in Michigan were Black Americans, compared to Michigan’s total Black American population of 14 percent. All 12 deaths that occurred by that same date could be attributed to coronavirus in St. Louis, Missouri, were Black Americans. And the Center for Disease Control reported on April 8, 2020, that during the month of March, 33 percent of individuals requiring hospitalization for coronavirus were black, compared to the overall 13 percent of the Black American population in the U.S.
Recommendations for Addressing Health Inequities
Unfortunately, these early indications of how COVID-19 would expose our nation’s existing health inequities have continued to hold true, especially for communities of color. And in Ohio, where SureImpact is headquartered, the resulting cases and deaths have echoed these early observations. To combat these inequities, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine called for the creation of the COVID-19 Minority Health Strike Force, and on June 16, 2020, the Strike Force hosted a virtual community meeting, where community thought leaders were asked to share recommendations for eliminating health inequities for minorities living in Ohio. Sheri Chaney Jones, president of both SureImpact and Measurement Resources Company, was invited to share her perspective.
The topics surfaced during the virtual conference included:
Maternal and child health— To reduce the high rates of infant mortality among communities of color in Ohio, greater collaboration among community partners is needed to increase access to transportation for expecting mothers in need of prenatal care, provide additional education aimed at improving the health of both mothers and babies. They also identified training for staff, so that they can deliver more culturally competent care.
Community diversion programs for individuals with substance use disorder—Through community programs such as the Harris County, Texas Recovery Initiative, reducing high instances of substance use disorder among minorities has seen great success, as a result of its community partnership model that focuses on recovery, not incarceration. The health department, law enforcement, and mental and behavioral health providers have achieved improved health outcomes, while also reducing costs for the community.
Long-term care workers for individuals living with disabilities—For those working in nursing homes, group homes, and additional long-term care settings, the impact of COVID-19 has been devastating. Due to the nature of their work, these employees have to come into contact with their clients to bathe, dress, and feed them. Disproportionately represented by minorities, these employees are placed in higher-risk, close-contact work environments, while also being higher-risk themselves due to the many pre-existing conditions that increase the severity of COVID-19.
Collaboration and Data are Key to Solving Health Inequities
In response to these presentations, Sheri Chaney Jones lifted out the common theme as the need for more and better data to overcome the current crisis, but more importantly, eradicate the health inequities within each of our communities. To do this, communities must collaborate to develop comprehensive collective impact initiatives and solutions that are outcomes-driven and sustainable. Much of this responsibility falls on the shoulders of social service organizations to identify who they are serving, how well these organizations are meeting their needs, and who is better off as a result of this work.