Courageous Conversations: Virginia’s director of diversity talks about first-of-its-kind plan to combat COVID-19 in communities of color

Courageous Conversations

HAMPTON ROADS, Va. (WAVY) – One of America’s biggest battles right now has put racial disparities on full display.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black, Hispanic and Native American people are all more than two-times more likely to contract COVID-19 and four times more likely to be hospitalized. Black people are twice as likely to die from the virus compared to white people.

10 On Your Side talked to Virginia’s chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer about those statistics that have put state officials into overdrive.

As a result of alarming numbers, Virginia now boasts a first-of-its-kind health equity working group, which was created as an emergency response body to COVID-19.

Stakeholders from all around the commonwealth have a seat at the table and are often seen standing by the governor’s side to save lives — not only at a critical time but also, more importantly, out in the communities that need help the most.

“We know we are living in unprecedented times and the larger health crisis is really structural inequity or structural racism,” said Dr. Janice Underwood. “So, for that fact we already knew there would be a disproportionate impact on people of color and those who’ve been historically marginalized. When you say ‘vulnerable’ or ‘at-risk communities,’ it’s usually a dog whistle for saying Black and brown communities or poor communities.”

Underwood talked about the all-out effort to prioritize equity when it comes to health — starting with more clearly defining who’s at risk. That includes households with $30,000 to $40,000 incomes, with four or more occupants who may not have the privilege of social distancing, and those that may have one or more comorbidities. Those variables make a fight against COVID-19 not just complicated, but often more deadly.

They’re handing out masks, hand sanitizer, and public health information. 

“We want to clear up misnomers about this public health crisis so they will know things like drinking bleach is not advisable,” said Underwood. “We’ve used mapping to pinpoint neighborhoods down to the door where we help local governments go door-to-door or have large events — many of which you’ve seen recently.”

They’ve held webinars about accessing state and federal resources and they’re connecting local organizations that can work with the government to link arms with them in the fight.

So, is this making a difference?

“Our numbers are trending down, but those inequities have not gone away,” said Underwood. “The Latino and Hispanic population is disproportionately high in terms of cases and the African American or Black community is statistically high in terms of death. Both of those statistics should alarm all of us towards sustained action.”

10 On Your Side also asked about issues of trust.

“We know there’s a historical — and might I add justifiable mistrust — in Black and Brown communities with regard to health care, with regard to government and with regard to law enforcement,” said Underwood. “So where all these crises are now intersecting and colliding with one another, we know we need to give people who have never had a seat at the table, a seat at the table. And we need to reach people we’ve never reached before.”

She says they are trying to go to every corner of the commonwealth to make sure everyone knows they matter, we’re in this together and we are “one Virginia strong.”

To find out more about their strategic plan to attack historical inequities and make systemic changes, click here.


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