Gov. Cooper signed Executive Order 143 on June 4 to address the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on communities of color in North Carolina.
The order establishes the Andrea Harris Social, Economic, Environmental and Health Equity Task Force, named after the co-founder of North Carolina Institute of Minority Economic Development.
As of June 1, Black individuals, who make up 22 percent of the state population, account for 30 percent of confirmed COVID-19 cases, and Latinx individuals, who make up 10 percent of the state population, account for 39 percent of confirmed cases.
The high percentage of people of color contracting the virus reflects social and economic inequity, Gov. Cooper said in a June 4 press briefing.
“I want to be clear – there is nothing inherent to black or brown people that makes them more susceptible to severe COVID-19 illness,” he said. “The disparity is because people of color have historically had less access to healthcare, housing, economic opportunity and more.”
Persisting health disparities
Brian Toomey, CEO of Piedmont Health Services, a group that serves medically underserved areas and populations in addition to normal-risk populations, said the pandemic has exacerbated inequities that communities of color experienced long before coronavirus outbreak.
According to a report by NC Justice Center, Black individuals are less likely to receive employer-sponsored health insurance due to high unemployment and underemployment rates.
Without jobs that offer health insurance, individuals can be caught in a “coverage gap,” said William Munn, policy analyst at NC Justice Center.
“They may make enough money not to actually be eligible for Medicaid, but too little money to be able to qualify for financial assistance in the Affordable Care Act marketplace,” he said.
Communities of color generally also have less access to health care services, which have not been traditionally built in their vicinity, Munn said.
North Carolina has 17 counties without a state-licensed hospital. Of these, seven of these have a population that is over 30 percent Black, according to the NC Justice Report.
The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services created an interactive map to identify social determinants of health, such as economic stability or education levels.
According to the map, 118 Census Tracts in Region 5, which includes Orange County, are classified as food deserts — low income neighborhoods with low supermarket and vehicle access.
According to the NC Justice report, the lack of healthy food puts individuals at greater risk during the pandemic.
“Neighborhoods without access to fruits, vegetables and fresh meat put families at greater risk to developing hypertension, obesity and heart disease, which are common underlying risk factors contributing to deaths from COVID-19,” the report states.
It's no surprise that communities of color are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus, Toomey said, especially when a large number of people in these communities are considered essential workers.
“It's really just where and how people have lived their lives,” he said. “A lot of jobs that people have right now are jobs at high risk, like working close quarters with each other, which just makes it difficult for people to stay healthy.”
What the order does
Machelle Sanders, Department of Administration secretary and chairperson of the governor's new task force, said in a June 4 press briefing that the Task Force has five focus areas.
“As missioned by the Governor, we will focus on issues related to access to health care, patient engagement in health care settings, economic opportunities in business development and employment, environmental justice and inclusion and education,” she said.
The order also directs assistance toward Black and minority-owned businesses, which are often “overlooked and under-resourced,” Cooper said.
Cooper's order tasks the North Carolina Pandemic Recovery Office with ensuring the equitable distribution of pandemic relief funds.The state’s Historically Underutilized Business Office will also receive $500,000 to start a small business enterprise program.
The order also directs the state's Department of Health and Human Services to ensure all communities have access to COVID-19 testing and related health care, and to use funding from the COVID-19 Recovery Act to provide related health services to uninsured North Carolinians.
According to the order, NCDHHS is also tasked with reporting racial and ethnic demographic data and establishing testing sites that are easily accessible to communities of color.
Toomey said the order addresses the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on certain communities, reflected in results from the 2,171 COVID-19 tests that Piedmont Health Services has completed through June 8. State policies don’t guarantee the outcome that communities will make a complete recovery from the effects of the pandemic, he said.
“These are the right policies to start with, and then it's up to us to be concerned about our fellow citizens, to make sure that we're keeping everybody protected and safe,” he said.
Similarly, Munn said that although the order is “an incredible first step” to recognize inequitable systems that result in disparities for communities of color, Cooper's administration should be intentional about resourcing the new task forces and institutions.
Munn added that coming to an agreement in a “hyper-partisan environment” is necessary for effective change to happen.
“Ideologically, they have to be committed,” Munn said. “They have to be able to drown out the more radical portions of their party or to gain their support in order to close up the gap.”
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