COVID-19 in Pa.: 6 ways to stop health disparities and racism during the pandemic

Candy Woodall York Daily RecordPublished 5:09 PM EDT Aug 13, 2020The COVID-19 pandemic affects everyone in som

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The COVID-19 pandemic affects everyone in some way, but it's especially difficult for minority communities and vulnerable populations that have struggled through health disparities for decades, according to top officials in the Wolf administration.

"I think the pandemic, in terms of health disparities, brought out ... that we are not playing on a level playing field," Gov. Tom Wolf said during a news conference Thursday at the York YMCA. 

Wolf and key members of his administration on Thursday shared six recommendations after a five-month investigation into COVID-19-related health disparities among Pennsylvania's minority and vulnerable populations.

The governor was joined by Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine, Second Lady Gisele Fetterman and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who led the COVID-19 Response Task Force that issued the recommendations.

The effects of the pandemic will impact minority communities "for months, if not years," Fetterman said. 

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Missing data

Communities of color in Pennsylvania have been disproportionately afflicted with the coronavirus, but it can be hard to see that clearly in state health data. 

At first glance, the 12,500 Black people who tested positive for COVID-19 is less than the 29,200 white people who tested positive in Pennsylvania. The same is true for the 1,400 Black people who died from the coronavirus and 4,700 white people who died. 

But when you factor in that 82 percent of the state is white, and 12 percent is Black, it's easier to see how the minority community has been disproportionately impacted. 

Furthermore, Black children have been disproportionately impacted. Some 42 kids in Pennsylvania have been sickened by Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children, and "the proportion of African-American children is significantly higher," Levine said. 

"We don't know why," she said. 

The Wolf administration is also concerned about the impact in the Latino and Asian communities across the state. 

For example, Latinos in York represent 33 percent of the city's population but made up 72 percent of confirmed COVID-19 cases in April, according to the York Daily Record. 

More: Latinos in York City infected with COVID-19 at higher rate than others: 71.6% of cases

The outbreak in York was tied to a food manufacturing plant in Adams County where multiple Latino residents in the city had worked. 

Similar outbreaks were reported in other densely populated cities with low-income workers.

"We know where you live is a major factor in determining your health," state Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said.

In April, the state started working to improve its data collection to get a better understanding of how the virus was affecting various groups of people. But as of Thursday, coronavirus data on race and ethnicity was still lagging on the state health department's website. 

The state made progress on collecting that information from medical providers, but there's still about 40 percent of cases with no race or ethnic data, Levine said. 

That data is "so critical to make sure we make the right decisions," she said. "We all need to work together, and they (medical providers) need to do a better job" of supplying the data. 

Six recommendations

The state's findings after its five-month investigation into COVID-related health disparities come at a time when Levine said there's "significant community spread and community transmission" in Pennsylvania.

State health officials on Thursday reported 991 new cases, pushing the Pennsylvania total past 122,000. The state had dipped to 200 to 300 new cases per day in May and early June, but for most of the summer cases have been climbing to 800 to 900 new cases per day. 

"Our actions as a community can lessen or worsen the impact COVID-19 has on fellow Pennsylvanians," Levine said.

That call to stop the spread is answered when Pennsylvanians wear a mask, avoid large gatherings and sanitize or wash their hands frequently, she said. 

But there are also legislative changes needed to create a fair public health system, state officials said.

Fetterman and his fellow task force identified six main areas where improvements can be made to provide more equality and equity in Pennsylvania's public health system: housing, criminal justice, food insecurity, health disparity, education and economic opportunities. 

“It’s unconscionable for Black, Hispanic, and Asian-Pacific Pennsylvanians to be hit harder by this pandemic, which has highlighted the systemwide inequity that already existed in these communities,” Fetterman said when the task force was created in mid-April. 

On Thursday, Fetterman outlined six areas of focus to ease the public health burden in communities of color. 

  • Housing: Sealing evictions for Pennsylvanians who applied for unemployment during COVID-19 will prevent tenants from being penalized and jeopardizing their future housing stability through no fault of their own.
  • Criminal Justice: Implementing a Driver’s License Amnesty Program will correct an oversight that left many Black and Brown Pennsylvanians with decreased mobility. While the legislature acted to end license suspensions for non-driving-related offenses, the move was not retroactive. This limits the ability to travel to healthcare and forces more people onto mass transit that could spread the virus.
  • Food Insecurity: Increasing the income threshold for food assistance will ensure that more people are eligible.
  • Health Disparity: It is crucial to continue the Alternative Payment Arrangement that helped to finance the gap when individuals were unable to access services until service access fluctuations subside.
  • Education: Standardizing remote learning and access to technology will help to ensure all students start with equal learning opportunities.
  • Economic Opportunities: Helping Black-and-Brown-owned businesses with direct, expedited assistance through special programs will reduce the number of these businesses that are forced to close permanently because of the virus.

The full, 34-page report can be found here. 

As students prepare to return to school, whether virtually or in physical classrooms, Fetterman highlighted the need to improve the state's broadband infrastructure. The task force found a large disparity in internet access within Black and brown communities. 

"We need to ensure that all students start with an equal learning opportunity by standardizing remote learning and access to technology," he said. 

Another top priority is helping communities of color with housing challenges, Fetterman said.

"An eviction filing can follow a family around for their whole life, creating hardship and uncertainty," he said. 

Wolf said he would consider all recommendations in the report. 

"We all need to work really hard to make sure that our society is as fair as it can be," he said. "It is my intention to use the information gathered in this report as a basis for making lasting change. This cannot be a plan that ends up being shelved and we trot it out every once in a while. We have to actually do something and I think the time is right to do that."

Candy Woodall is a reporter for the USA Today Network. She can be reached at 717-480-1783 or on Twitter at @candynotcandace.

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