Disparities in states’ COVID-19’s health outcomes have driven home the need for policymakers to reassess their work to advance racial equity and redirect efforts to be more effective. A recent update to the National Academy for State Health Policy’s (NASHP) interactive map, How States Collect Data, Report, and Act on COVID-19 Racial and Ethnic Disparities, reveals that more than half of all states are now actively engaged in advancing equity in their COVID-19 responses and beyond.
As the pandemic progresses and reveals the disproportionate impact of the disease on people of color, several states have created task forces and workgroups to ensure the equitable distribution of testing, personal protective equipment (PPE), and information about the disease. Some states are funding these efforts to better achieve equitable health outcomes for communities of color.
In Maine, for example, Black Mainers represent about 1.4 percent of the total population, but over 22 percent of the COVID-19 cases whose race is known. Gov. Janet Mills announced that $1 million from the Coronavirus Relief Fund would be dedicated to expanding services like testing, case investigation, contact tracing, and education to help reduce the disproportionately large racial and ethnic disparities in COVID-19.
As the recommendations and findings from the state task forces are published, one theme that emerges is the need for states to engage with communities and prioritize the needs they identify. The examples below underscore a critical lesson that states have learned from COVID-19 – their prior strategies to advance equity were not sufficient and integrating community feedback is essential to forge new and effective strategies. These recommendations reflect the importance of involving communities and people of color in states’ long-term policies:
- In New Hampshire, the COVID-19 Equity Response Team released its initial Report and Recommendations in which they described the need for proactive community engagement, working toward an ideal of co-creation and community ownership.
- In Oregon, the Equity Framework in COVID-19 Response and Recovery features a commitment to make community-informed policy and forge partnerships by engaging with community leaders who should be an essential part of the decision-making process.
- In Washington State, proposed recommendations from the Governor’s Interagency Council on Health Disparities include the provision of opportunities for communities to take the lead in creating information about and for themselves, including through contracts and grants.
- In Virginia, Gov. Ralph Northam announced a pilot program in Richmond to increase equitable access to PPE in underserved communities that may be more adversely impacted by the COVID-19. The pilot program includes community engagement events and training on cultural humility and implicit bias for city personnel who engage with the community.
The themes of including communities in decision-making and in the crafting of emergency responses are reflected in state funding streams as well, with some states providing funds to community groups. The Utah COVID-19 Community Task Force created a multicultural subcommittee that oversees the COVID-19 Racial Equity & Inclusion Grant Fund. The fund provides grants up to $5,000 to community-based organizations that provide emergency assistance to multicultural communities. In Michigan, $20 million was made available to the Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities to respond to community needs associated with the disparate impacts the virus has had on communities of color. Community groups were able to apply for the funding through the Rapid Response Initiative, with funds available for a wide range of needs.
As states continue to work towards equitable health outcomes and look for ways to counter a long history of systemic racism, several are focusing on children’s health as a way to address disparities and potentially influence health trajectories in the future. For example:
- New Hampshire’s Equity Response Report recommended Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) as an area to explore to continue understanding and serving communities of need in New Hampshire, specifically communities of color, at both the state and local levels.
- Ohio’s COVID-19 Minority Health Strike Force Blueprint highlights strategies to improve health outcomes and advance equity for children, including strengthening early childhood education and specifically ensuring that K-12 chronic absenteeism reduction efforts meet the needs of children of color. Ohio’s Plan to Advance Equity highlights how childhood poverty disproportionately affects African American and Latinx children in Ohio. To address this, the governor established the Office of Children Services Transformation within the office of Children’s Initiatives and is investing $675 million to assist students’ wellness and success.
The COVID-19 pandemic is far from over, and the effectiveness of these strategies will be evaluated based on how well they reduce disparities in COVID-19 outcomes and the advancement of health and social equity beyond the pandemic. NASHP will continue to engage states in identifying promising practices and will provide tools and support as states implement their task force and workgroup recommendations and measure change and success over time.
Support for this work was provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the foundation.