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To address pandemic disparities: Plan, Plan, Plan

The COVID-19 pandemic has had devastating, tragic consequences for many people, families, and communities throughout the United States. Studies, data, and analyses now reveal that communities of color and limited English proficiency are among the most seriously impacted by the deadly virus.

Racial Disparities and COVID-19 Cases

National Public Radio (NPR) recently analyzed pandemic data. NPR’s analysis makes the following conclusions:

“Nationally, African-American deaths from COVID-19 are nearly two times greater than would be expected based on their share of the population. In four states, the rate is three or more times greater.

In 42 states plus Washington D.C., Hispanics/Latinos make up a greater share of confirmed cases than their share of the population. In eight states, it’s more than four times greater.

White deaths from COVID-19 are lower than their share of the population in 37 states and the District of Columbia. ..

NPR’s analysis finds that in 32 states plus Washington D.C., blacks are dying at rates higher than their proportion of the population. In 21 states, it’s substantially higher, more than 50% above what would be expected…

African-Americans have higher rates of underlying conditions, including diabetes, heart disease, and lung disease, that are linked to more severe cases of COVID-19. They also often have less access to quality health care, and are disproportionately represented in essential frontline jobs that can’t be done from home, increasing their exposure to the virus…

Latinos and Hispanics test positive for the coronavirus at rates higher than would be expected for their share of the population in all but one of the 44 jurisdictions that report Hispanic ethnicity data (42 states plus Washington D.C.). The rates are two times higher in 30 states, and over four times higher in eight states…

Like African-Americans, Latinos are over-represented in essential jobs that increase their exposure to the virus. Regardless of their occupation, high rates of poverty and low wages mean that many Latinos feel compelled to leave home to seek work. Dense, multi-generational housing conditions make it easier for the virus to spread, she says.

The disproportionate share of deaths isn’t as stark for Latinos as it is for African-Americans… [T]hat’s likely because the U.S. Latino population overall is younger— nearly three-quarters are millennials or younger, according to data from the Pew Research Center. But in California, when you look at it by age groups, [older] Latinos are just as likely to die as African-Americans.”

The racial disparities revealed by the pandemic must be wake-up calls at all levels of government and health care to alleviate what the coronavirus has highlighted. Knowledge of health care disparities and inequities can inform policy makers as they look to alleviate the virus’ current impacts and prepare for a future epidemic or pandemic.

Utah’s State Policies

In Utah, state government has begun to do just that.

As reported by KSL Radio:

“In particular, the Hispanic community continues to be hit hard. Their number of cases has already surpassed white residents, although Hispanics make up less than 15-percent of the state population. That’s why the state’s Multicultural Subcommittee, a part of the Utah COVID-19 task force, is looking for a way to break down language barriers and provide information to those affected.

Specifically, the state is about 14-percent Hispanic, while Utah’s population is approximately 78-percent white. The cases of Hispanic Utahans surpassed those of white residents in late May and now the gap has grown to over 1,000 cases.

In direct reaction to these developing numbers, the state created a Multicultural Subcommittee as part of their COVID-19 Task Force. The subcommittee, made up of a diverse group of 23 individuals with varying backgrounds, launched in late April.”

While this effort is noteworthy and important for the health of Utah residents, its commencement begs a larger question about the State’s disaster and public health emergency preparation.

According to KSL: “While it seems like a progressive and forward-thinking initiative to tackle a unique problem, it does raise the question of whether the state actually waited too long to create such a group.

Rebecca Chavez-Houck represented Salt Lake City’s District 24 in the Utah House of Representatives from 2008-18. Now, she’s one of the members on the Multicultural Subcommittee.

‘What I would say is we’ve been playing a lot of catch-up,’ she explains. ‘Trying to find ways to best communicate.’”

Language Access is Essential to the Emergency Planning of Federal Agencies

Multiple federal agencies, including the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security agree. Emergency planning that encompasses ALL communities, including communities of color and limited English proficiency, is essential for public health and also to comply with federal law.

As these agencies state in an emergency/disaster response guidance document:

“[Federal funding] recipients should make language services available in all their public-facing programs or activities. Language services may include in-person interpretation, telephonic interpretation, translation services, monolingual communication in the LEP person’s language, and sight translation. Including input from and addressing the needs of LEP populations in evacuation and disaster preparedness plans that are made widely available helps ensure that communities have access to them when needed.

[Federal funding] recipients should assess the language needs of the service community and develop a language access plan, which is a management tool that provides an administrative blueprint for bringing the agency into compliance with language access requirements. Such plans outline the recipient’s policies and standards for delivering services to LEP individuals and describe how the agency will implement those policies and standards, including explaining how the agency will increase its capacity to address the language service and resource needs identified in the self-assessment.

Recipients should periodically review their plans to evaluate whether changes need to be made, including addressing changing demographics of their service populations. “

Communication Challenges

As Utah works through its new initiative, the State is encountering the communication challenges that local government must overcome during the current pandemic and in the future.

“Chavez-Houck notes that communication is central to staying safe in this worldwide pandemic. A government warning can only do so much if you aren’t able to understand the language.

“Language access was a challenge,” says the former representative. “Initially, a lot of the information, early, early on, was only being put out in English.”

Because of that, in the short-term, the group’s top priority has been increasing language accessibility. That means translating online information or meeting with communities to help interpret.

Most recently, it includes relying on trusted minority members in the community to relay the latest information in an easily understood fashion. .. According to Chavez-Houck, the state changing ‘risk levels’ so often may be making it more difficult for minority groups to properly follow safety guidelines.

‘I believe, to me anyways, you just get yourself up to speed and you start communicating the restrictions and the recommendations for one level… and then it changes again,’ she explains.”

Lessons Learned from this Pandemic

Among the coronavirus lessons learned in Utah is that language assistance planning, funding, and implementation are critically vital and must be part of all local government emergency planning. Indeed, failing to do so has life threatening consequences.

According to the Department of Justice:

“Failing to plan for and serve immigrant communities in emergencies can undermine response efforts and increase safety risks for both local communities and first responders… emergencies and disasters highlight a recurring lesson: we need to take proactive measures to ensure that all members of our communities are appropriately incorporated into emergency management activities.”


© Bruce L. Adelson 2020. All Rights Reserved The material herein is educational and informational only.  No legal advice is intended or conveyed.

Bruce L. Adelson, Esq., is nationally recognized for his compliance expertise.  Mr. Adelson is a former U.S Department of Justice Civil Rights Division Senior Trial Attorney.  Mr. Adelson is a Department of Family Medicine faculty member at Georgetown University School of Medicine where he teaches organizational culture, implicit bias, cultural and civil rights awareness.

Mr. Adelson’s blogs are a Bromberg exclusive

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