More than a year into the pandemic, COVID-19 is proving to be a complicated syndemic with political, economic, and social factors influencing who is most at risk of infection and death. With communities impacted by structural racism facing higher COVID-19 infection and mortality rates, state responses and recovery plans are focusing on equity.
- Employment and income;
- Food environment;
- Health and medical care;
- Outdoor environment; and
- Community safety.
The committee recommends sustaining investments in the expansion of supportive and affordable housing for domestic violence victims and incarcerated individuals re-entering their communities, as well as non-congregate housing for people experiencing homelessness.
The committee also recommends incentivizing employers who accommodate extended work-from-home requests from employees and working with pharmacies and other medical corporations to prevent treatment shortages in underserved areas.
The DC Council has also passed legislation to create the Council Office of Racial Equity (CORE). CORE recently released a report in March examining racial equity in the District’s vaccination rates and practices, and proposing best practices to ensure the District can ensure a racially equitable process moving forward. For example, to ensure equitable vaccine distribution, the District prioritizes doses for individuals living in high-need zip codes and has restricted registration on certain days to allow only those individuals to sign up on the vaccine portal or call the vaccine hotline. CORE is currently working on another report that focuses on a racially equitable economic recovery.
In Illinois, the Department of Public Health established a COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force to work across the department and with other relevant state and local entities to assess health concerns of minority communities and create and maintain culturally sensitive programs. The task force launched a COVID-19 text messaging system that includes a Spanish-speaking option. The department also supported the City of Chicago, in partnership with the city’s chief equity officer, to create the Racial Equity Rapid Response Team (RERRT) to address the disproportionate effects of the pandemic on communities of color. The city experienced a significant improvement in vaccine administration to communities of color by February 2021 as a result of RERRT’s oversight and involvement.
Georgia’s Department of Public Health created a COVID-19 Health Equity Council to ensure equity in COVID-19 vaccination education and distribution efforts in communities most affected by COVID-19. Members of the council represent community-based organizations, news stations, chambers of commerce, and universities. The council will work with Georgia’s 18 public health districts to address COVID-19 concerns.
State Actions to Address Equity Beyond the Pandemic
States are making financial and cross-agency leadership commitments to ensure equity is the focus of their work moving forward. Washington, DC, Illinois, Indiana, and Washington State have recently hired or are in the process of hiring cabinet-level positions to oversee inter-agency diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. States are also implementing cross-sector equity plans and making significant investments in identified program and policy areas.
Washington’s state legislature passed HB 1783 in 2020 to create the Office of Equity. Lawmakers explained, “the legislature finds that a more inclusive Washington is possible if agencies identify and implement effective strategies to eliminate systemic inequities.” In February 2021, Gov. Jay Inslee named a director of the program to be in office by March 8. The office will be staffed by eight people and is tasked to develop and implement a five-year equity plan for the state. Staff will work with other state agencies to help create and implement DEI plans.
In his $365 million equity policy package, Gov. Inslee earmarked $2.5 million from the state’s general fund for the office. Other state equity priorities include:
- $10 million for the Washington COVID-19 Immigrant Relief Fund;
- Funding for the Office of Minority and Women’s Business Enterprises to launch the Washington State Toolkit for Equity in Public Spending to increase the number of minority and women contractors;
- Funding for the Department of Financial Institutions to address racial wealth inequities by working with financial institutions, federal, state, and local governments, and community partners;
- $79 million to support residential broadband connection for families and $6 million for a Digital Navigator Program that enables navigators to provide one-on-one support for students, English language learners, older adults, and individuals searching for work; and
- $8.4 million for students who experienced foster care or homelessness, including $3 million for pre-apprenticeship training.
In Florida, bills introduced in the House of Representatives and State Senate (HB 183 and SB 404) require each county health department to designate a minority health liaison. The liaison will collaborate with the state Office of Minority Health and Health Equity on implementation of programs, policies, and practices. Examples of these activities include:
- Data analysis for disparities in health status, health care quality, and access to care for racial and ethnic minority populations;
- Demonstration projects to increase health equity;
- Community health workers working to improve cultural competency and individual and community self-sufficiency;
- Analysis of a community’s risk for involvement in the adult and juvenile legal system and foster care system, or risk of homelessness. Available support programs and diversion programs addressing these areas will also be examined; and
- Developing and executing programming for individuals with limited English proficiency to help them better access health care services.
Racial equity impact assessments are another strategy to address equity beyond the pandemic. These assessments help determine the impact of a policy or budget item on racial and ethnic groups. Seven states (CO, CT, FL, IA, MD, NJ, and OR) require racial impact statements. The following states recently took action to establish racial impact assessments:
- Maine’s legislature passed LD 2, a bill that requires the inclusion of racial impact statements in the legislative process. The bill allows legislative committees to request state agencies to provide analysis of the impact of pending legislation on historically disadvantaged racial populations.
- The Virginia General Assembly passed HB 1990, a bill that allows the chairs of the House Committee for Courts of Justice and Senate Committee on the Judiciary to request racial and impact statements from the Joint Legislative Audit Review Commission. Committee chairs may not request more than three racial and ethnic impact statements during a single session.
- The Washington, DC Council passed L23-0181, the Racial Equity Achieves Results (REACH) Act. Among other activities to ensure racial equity in the District, the legislation creates a racial impact assessment requirement for council legislation. The District’s Council Office of Racial Equity (CORE) is charged with evaluating legislation prior to committee markup for its potential impact on racial equity.
States are taking important steps to immediately address the impact of COVID-19 on racial and ethnicity disparities and incorporating health equity approaches into their systems moving forward. In their 2021 state of the state addresses, 21 governors highlighted strategies to address racial and ethnic disparities. Several governors specifically discussed racism and racial injustices, citing how communities of color were disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 and articulating their commitment to improvement. The recent passage of the American Rescue Plan will provide significant financial support to states for their recovery efforts. States have the opportunity to center equity in their dispersal of funds and address the health, social, and economic impact of COVID-19.
To read more about state initiatives to address health equity, explore NASHP’s toolkit, Resources for States to Address Health Equity and Disparities.
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.
As states rapidly work to get COVID-19 vaccines into arms as quickly as possible as viral variants spread, state officials know vaccine rollout plans must focus on equitable distribution to communities of color, especially Black and Latinx communities that have experienced disproportionately high infection rates, hospitalizations, and deaths. However, early data suggests that these populations are receiving vaccines at lower rates than White Americans.
Pharmacies will be a critical venues for vaccine access, and this pharmacy distribution program is expected to build that capacity as the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and state health directors work together to identity areas of need and ship vaccines to pharmacies in those areas, especially in the early days of the program when distribution is still curtailed by limited vaccine supplies. State officials told NASHP that the selection of pharmacies will be based on their ability to both reach the most vulnerable populations and also align with states’ current distribution phases and priority populations in their vaccination plans.
Tracking and Reporting Race and Ethnicity Data
One of the first steps to ensure equitable access to vaccines is having the data to determine where disparities exist. Forty-eight states and Washington, DC currently collect and share varying levels of vaccine data in publicly available data dashboards. Of these, 26 states and Washington, DC publicly display race and ethnicity data for individuals who have received their vaccines. States report the data slightly differently – which can result in different conclusions about their efforts. They are reporting either:
- Total number of individuals vaccinated by race and ethnicity (for example, Florida and Pennsylvania);
- Percentage of total individuals of each race or ethnicity in the state who have been vaccinated (North Dakota); or
- Percent of total doses that have gone to individuals by each race and ethnicity (Indiana and North Carolina).
While these state trackers provide some insight into who is getting vaccinated, there are limitations in their data – a large percentage of race and ethnicity data is either missing or not reported. Nationwide, race and ethnicity data is missing for nearly half of those vaccinated, compared to age and gender data, which is reported 99.9 and 97 percent of the time, respectively. Even in states that collect and publicly report this data, some report over 50 percent of doses with “unknown” race and ethnicity. Providers will report “unknown” in the race and ethnicity fields either because the providers do not ask for the data, or because the recipients do not provide it. It is unclear why individuals are declining to provide their race and ethnicity, but some experts believe that some concerns may stem from a fear that their demographic data could be misused. For example, immigrants are concerned that getting the vaccine – or providing their data – may negatively affect their immigration status. However, the CDC said that vaccine data cannot be used for immigration enforcement, and that getting the COVID-19 vaccine will not be considered as part of the public charge inadmissibility rule.
Many states are working to improve their data collection and reporting. Some, such as Alabama, are collecting race and ethnicity data but have not yet made it public because it is incomplete. These states are working to collect complete and accurate data before publishing it. Most states that are reporting race and ethnicity data publicly do not require providers to include that information, citing a lack of express permission from the patient or concern that requirements might prevent providers from reporting vaccine doses at all.
Other states are imposing requirements to improve data. In North Carolina, Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen pushed to make race and ethnicity a required field in the state’s COVID-19 vaccine registry. According to state officials, North Carolina emphasizes equity as a core value and conducts outreach and training with providers to emphasize the importance of race and ethnicity data. The availability of the data has enabled outreach strategies, such as partnerships with faith leaders.
While requiring providers to upload race and ethnicity data can add to administrative and logistical challenges, collecting the data is critical to ensuring that vaccine outreach and administration are targeted to the communities most in need. If large percentages of race and ethnicity data are missing, ensuring equity in distribution becomes much more difficult.
Locating Clinics in High-Need Areas
Delivering vaccines to underserved communities is key and the new Federal Pharmacy Program helps address this goal. States and local health departments can use preliminary data to identify counties or jurisdictions with disparities and low rates of vaccination uptake to use to target their vaccination efforts.
Rick Palacio, the cochair of Colorado’s COVID-19 Vaccine Equity Taskforce, announced that one of the state’s goals is to hold pop-up vaccination clinics in half of the state’s top 50 census tracts containing low-density, low-income communities. Officials emphasized the importance of using data to determine under-vaccinated areas and tailor communication strategies to reach those residents. The state kicked off this plan by vaccinating more than 10,000 seniors at a mass vaccination event in Denver and plans to expand the initiative as it receives more doses.
Other examples of state efforts to identify and reach underserved areas include:
- Rhode Island is using its hospitalization, death, and case data to target vaccine distribution by geography. Vaccines will be available in community clinics, pharmacies, and housing sites in communities that have been identified as high risk.
- Illinois has had success by holding events scheduled by local health departments that reached out to discreet, hard-to-reach communities and invited them to register for a vaccine appointments.
- Connecticut is closely tracking vaccine rollout in localities that rank high on the social vulnerability index.
- After Washington, DC opened its vaccine registration portal to all individuals over the age of 65, data quickly showed that an outsized proportion of appointments was going to wealthier White residents. In response, health officials made more appointments available for residents in parts of the city that were currently securing the fewest vaccine appointments. The city also started making appointments for residents in these high-priority zip codes available a day before other eligible residents could register.
- North Carolina has partnered with faith leaders to ensure communities of color and underserved communities have access to vaccinations at the state’s mass vaccination clinics, including releasing appointments to Black and Latinx church attendees before opening up registration to the general public.
States can also reduce transportation barriers to increase vaccination uptake and ensure transportation will not be a barrier for targeted populations to access the vaccine. North Carolina’s mass vaccination clinic location was chosen for its proximity to public transportation.
The Tennessee Department of Health (TDH) is expanding access to the COVID-19 vaccine by focusing on increasing vaccinations in rural and underserved areas. TDH partnered with pharmacies and community health clinics to add over 100 vaccination sites across the state, focusing on “hard-to-reach” areas, as identified in the state’s vaccination plan. Tennessee’s state plan indicated that 5 percent of the state’s allocation of COVID-19 vaccines are earmarked for use in targeted areas with vulnerable populations.
Additionally, at a February US House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee hearing, Louisiana state officials cited a plan to create community mobile strike teams that will travel to areas that rank high on the social vulnerability index to administer vaccines. The strike teams will be staffed by the National Guard and funded by the Federal Emergency Management Administration, which reimburses states for 100 percent of costs associated with the National Guard’s COVID-19 relief efforts. A state official in Michigan also noted at this hearing that the increase in doses from the federal government will help advance equity, because those extra doses can be distributed directly to underserved areas and minority populations.
Tailoring Communication Strategies to Address Vaccine Hesitancy
While reporting and tracking vaccination data and removing logistical barriers are important strategies for identifying pockets of need, they alone are not sufficient to reduce disparities. A history of racism in the health care system has led to distrust by communities of color. Though the share of adults planning to get the COVID-19 vaccine has increased over the year, according to recent surveys White adults (53 percent) remain more likely than Black (35 percent) and Latinx (42 percent) individuals to want to be vaccinated as soon as possible. A survey last fall found that less than 20 percent of Black Americans trusted vaccine safety and efficacy. The survey also indicated that the best messengers to support vaccination in these communities are those living in their own communities, or their health care providers.
State officials and several members of the federal Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) mentioned that the desire to vaccinate quickly must be balanced with the need to reach vulnerable communities. State officials note that balancing speed and equity is one of the biggest challenges they face. Community input builds trust and assists in building effective and acceptable strategies. For example, Tennessee has an African American Health Care Clinician Workgroup, with working members from the NAACP, the Black Nursing Society, and other Black organizations, who are disseminating messaging on the importance of vaccinations and will ultimately help vaccinate Black communities. The Colorado Department of Health and Environment has released commercials in English and Spanish featuring Colorado health care workers who are people of color, promoting the message that vaccines are safe. West Virginia is funding faith-based community members and people of color to administer COVID-19 vaccines directly to communities of color, ascribing to the principle that having trusted, local figures helping with distribution will improve those communities’ confidence in the vaccine.
Federal and state governments are working to vaccinate residents as quickly as possible, while also working to ensure doses are equitably distributed. In light of reports of disparities in vaccination rates and in vaccination access among people of color and in rural communities, the Biden Administration is acting on its promise to ensure an equitable distribution, including their new strategy to ship extra doses to pharmacies in hard to reach areas. While distribution strategies vary across states and are continually tweaked to improve efficacy and equity, the emerging best practices:
- Use data to track and identify under-vaccinated areas and populations;
- Set up additional clinics in underserved areas and provide additional doses to these clinics;
- Ensure transportation is available for patients to access the clinics; and
- Partner with local agencies and community organizations to promote vaccine confidence.
Each of these components is necessary to ensure underserved communities and communities of color are interested in receiving vaccines and are able to access them.
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.
Supported employment is used to help people with severe mental illness and other disabilities obtain and retain jobs. As states increasingly promote employment among public assistance recipients, could this model be expanded to new populations, including those with more common mental disorders or racial or ethnic groups who face health disparities? In this report, NASHP and Massachusetts General Hospital’s Disparities Research Unit examined how five states (CT, OK, TN, UT, and WA) are using their supported employment programs to tackle these issues.
Read or download: How Supported Employment Can Address Mental Health Inequities in Racial and Ethnic Minority Populations: Five States’ Experiences
Contact Malka Berro with any questions or to share your state’s supported employment efforts.