January 24, 2022

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Democrats urge White House to step up as minority communities hit hard by coronavirus

On private caucus calls in recent weeks, several members have raised the idea of giving more money to Native American tribes to help fight the virus in their communities. And House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) stressed Wednesday that lawmakers are concerned about how this virus is hurting all vulnerable populations, including black, Latino and Asian Americans as well as the broader tribal and immigrant communities.

That cry for help has gotten louder as early data from cities like Chicago show that as much as 70 percent of the city’s residents killed by the virus are black even though they make up around a third of the population.

“One wonders if you begin to identify this as a ‘black virus,’” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), a member of the CBC, told reporters on a press call on Tuesday. “The facts speak for themselves.”

Public health experts say black Americans are no more likely than other racial groups to become infected with Covid-19, though they face a higher risk of severe illness if they do contract the disease because of underlying health risks including asthma, hypertension and diabetes.

In Louisiana where African Americans make up 70 percent of deaths from coronavirus but make up 32 percent of the population, hypertension was the leading underlying condition of those who had died, according to data released by the state’s governor on Monday,

High uninsurance rates among Latinos and African Americans also make it more likely that those populations could forgo seeking treatment.

The racial disparity in the U.S. outbreak is a complex problem created over decades, in part, because of inadequate access to health care. There’s no simple solution, Democrats say, though more data and more money for testing, treatment and outreach are crucial.

“When it comes to race, there has been a racial disparity in health outcomes in this country for a long time,” said Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), who represents the majority-black community of Flint, which struggled for years with a public health crisis related to contaminated drinking water.

“Typically we see that in data that plays out over years. Now, we’re seeing that in data that is manifesting over days, literally,” Kildee said, adding that he’s noticing the discrepancy, anecdotally, in his own district.

Still, much of the U.S. data comes from a patchwork of state and local health departments, many of which are not breaking down the number of cases or deaths by race. Just Tuesday, Maryland officials said the state would start releasing coronavirus data broken down by race. But other states continue to refuse to release the information.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said the interim relief package congressional leaders are hoping to pass this week is one way to begin to address the startling data showing black and brown Americans are disproportionately affected by the deadly respiratory virus. That narrow package is currently aimed at replenishing funds for the Paycheck Protection Program that assists small businesses.

One of Democrats’ demands is that at least half of the infusion of small business funds be directed toward banks that work with women and minority-owned businesses. Keeping those businesses open, Hoyer said, is a critical piece of the economy, particularly in low-income areas.

“That’s not directly related to health but it’s directly related to minority communities to stay afloat financially,” Hoyer said in an interview Wednesday.

The No. 2 Democrat said he would be studying data on “not only the racial disparities but the economic disparities” in the coming weeks.

“My presumption is both are driving the discrepancy between majority populations and minority populations between the catching of the virus and the depth of the consequences.”

In addition, Hoyer said Democrats want to see more funding for community health centers either this week or in the next, broader Phase 4 relief package. Those centers often serve rural and low-income populations who may not live in close proximity to hospitals.

“This ought to really energize us in looking at this disparity because it is stark, it’s dangerous and it’s unacceptable,” Hoyer said.

The disparity in coronavirus cases and deaths was also a focus of a Democratic Caucus call on Monday in which members like Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Pa.) — whose state has refused to collect race or ethnic data on their coronavirus cases — called attention to the trend.

One idea gaining steam this week is requiring the CDC to collect and release more demographic data related to the outbreak.

Top Democrats, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Ron Wyden as well as Reps. Robin Kelly and Ayanna Presley, have written to the CDC to encourage the idea.

Members of the CBC, meanwhile, say they are working nonstop to get information out to minority communities, holding tele-town halls and conference calls on a near-daily basis.

“We are trying to get the word out every possible way we can,” Bass said.

Laura Barrón-López contributed to this report.

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