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Why COVID-19 Is Disproportionately Affecting Black Mainers, And How DHHS Is Trying To Help

Immigrant communities in Maine are especially vulnerable to COVID-19, because many immigrants live in close quarters with a large number of family members, and because many are essential workers.

As part of its monitoring of COVID-19 in Maine, the state Department of Health and Human Services tracks race and ethnicity of all cases through its contact tracing system.

Maine Calling’s Jennifer Rooks spoke with Leana Amaez, DHHS’s manager of diversity, equity & inclusion, who says the numbers are cause for concern.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Amaez: We’re seeing some really stark disparities and things worth noting. So if you look, black and African American people in Maine only make up less than 20,000 people in the population, and yet make up 20.9% of all known COVID-19 cases. So relative to their population share, those are really dramatic numbers, as we’re seeing.

There are also some disproportionate numbers being seen for the Hispanic population, though not quite as extreme. Hispanics make up about 1.6% of our population but 2.8% of our cases. The largest disparities certainly are seen within the black and African American community.

Rooks: We’ve already talked about some of the reasons for a high COVID cases among immigrant communities, namely that so many are essential workers and also that so many people live in such close quarters. Are there other reasons?

That’s the question that we are trying to understand in concert with many of our community partners, coming together to understand how they’re being impacted. And I think what we see is that COVID-19 hasn’t created these disparities, but laid bare disparities that already exist. Disparities in access to health care, disparities in the types of professions that people work in, and the conditions in which people live, which ultimately leave them more susceptible to infectious disease.

The question is how do we respond to COVID-19 in a way that helps us to respond to the immediate crisis, but also start to address some of those disparities that are actually leading to the disparities that we’re seeing in the data?

What is DHHS is doing now differently than before in trying to address some of these disparities, and keep more immigrants safe?

I think the No. 1 thing is listening to the communities. First and foremost, we’ve started to do some regular stakeholder engagement throughout all of our offices, really seeing that as an important part of government, but specifically around the disparities that we’re seeing with COVID-19. We’re bringing together a range of leaders and advocates for people of color, new Mainers, and our tribes on a regular basis to hear their concerns and begin to address those and using those concerns to inform our work.

I also want to mention the work also of our CDC district public health liaisons who work and engage with a number of community-based organizations on a regular basis, but during this crisis have been pulling together groups of folks based on regional access and really listening to how different groups have been affected and trying to bring them together to problem solve.

Right now we are working with community action agencies and Catholic Charities to help fund and subcontract with some of those community-based organizations to ensure that we’re providing culturally and linguistically appropriate education, so not just translating documents coming out of the CDC, but also really making sure that they’re getting to communities in ways that make sense for those communities, and that people are able to work with local community health workers to get information, get testing and get support so that they can remain in isolation or quarantine when that’s necessary.

More information about COVID-19 in Maine, including breakdowns by race and ethnicity, can be found at the Maine CDC website. To hear the full episode of Maine Calling, click here.