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House pandemic response committee learns about disparities surrounding the disease

Information is gathered from a client at the drive-up COVID-19 testing site at the People’s Center Clinics and Services in Minneapolis April 29. Photo by Paul Battaglia
Information is gathered from a client at the drive-up COVID-19 testing site at the People’s Center Clinics and Services in Minneapolis April 29. Photo by Paul Battaglia

Health experts on Wednesday briefed lawmakers on the toll the COVID-19 pandemic has taken on communities of color and the disparities that can make the virus more dangerous to some Minnesotans than others. 

Members of the House Select Committee on Minnesota’s Pandemic Response and Rebuilding heard from several area doctors who detailed how the pandemic does not impact everyone equally.

A June review of racial and ethnic disparities in COVID-19 cases in the United States done by the Mayo Clinic cited Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data that found 34% of those who have the virus are in the Latinx population and 22% are African Americans, who make up 18% and 13%, respectively, of the country’s total population.

And the death rate of both groups was double that of white Americans.

The study’s authors found a number of societal factors, including lack of access to health care that leads to higher rates of pre-existing medical conditions such as diabetes, hypertension and obesity which make people more vulnerable to the virus.

House Select Committee on Minnesota’s Pandemic Response and Rebuilding (Remote Hearing) 9/9/20

But there are even deeper problems such as economic disparities that keep people from seeking treatment along with distrust of the government in some communities that make people resistant to safety guidelines.

Dr. Farhiya Farah, an assistant professor at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota and director of the school’s public health programs, said COVID-19 has once again made obvious the systemic inequities in health care revealed by other crises.

She said economic support is crucial for impacted communities to provide access to medical care. Her work with immigrant communities over the past two decades has also shown there is often miscommunication and misinformation surrounding health care issues that must be combatted.

“I cannot overemphasize this,” Farah said.

Dr. Dimitri Drekonja, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota and member of Minnesota Doctors for Health Equity, said he believes the item at the top of every health care professional’s wish list would be a clear message from state and national leaders about how people need to fight COVID-19 together.

“All of our problems begin and end with ongoing community transmission of this virus and if you could get a unified message out there, which I know is a big ask, that would make so many of these other things go away,” Drekonja told the committee, which was formed at the end of the 2020 regular legislative session.

It has met four times and already discussed issues such the economic impact of COVID-19 and the safety concerns of health care workers.

Stella Whitney-West, CEO of NorthPoint Health and Wellness Center, provided several solutions that may help in the weeks and months to come, including:

  • targeted funding to pay for testing in communities at highest risk;
  • offering specific locations and times, as her organization has done, that are devoted solely to testing in order to overcome fears about visiting clinics where people might be exposed to the virus; and
  • developing partnerships with people and organizations already trusted in the community to better deliver a vaccine when one becomes available.

Rep. Peggy Bennett (R-Albert Lea) asked if there was anything the government should be doing to “get out of the way” so physicians could work more efficiently.

Drekonja said relaxing certain legal requirements that hamper how doctors can use telemedicine most efficiently could help, as could changing billing practices that incentivize more technical interactions with patients when often a simple phone call would be just as effective and much easier.

Rep. Rena Moran (DFL-St. Paul) said it is important to create a health care system that allows everyone health care access when they need it. She said there was no biological basis for the health disparities among those have COVID-19, “but there are a lot of structural and institutional reasons.”


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