Racial Health Disparities and COVID-19: Four State Strategies

By Brandy Whisman, Policy Analyst

The COVID-19 public health crisis has continued to highlight health disparities for people of color. Recent studies have shown that COVID-19 disproportionately affects people of color. While African Americans make up less than 14% of the U.S. population, over 28% have been identified as having COVID-19. Another study, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), showed that non-Hispanic African Americans were overrepresented in hospital populations. Nearly two-thirds of COVID-19 cases are missing ethnicity demographics. Addressing these issues require multiple strategies and policies that address the root causes of racial health disparities.

Racial health disparities refer to differences in health and health care based on race. Health disparities are closely linked to socioeconomic status and environmental factors. Strategies that states can take to help address racial health disparities in minority communities and vulnerable populations include:

States like Louisiana have responded to racial health disparities by forming task forces to examine and expand the response to COVID-19 in minority communities. In a recent press release, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards stated, “We know that right now 70% of our deaths in Louisiana from coronavirus are African Americans. This is a disturbing trend and one that deserves our attention, which is why we are engaging a group of leaders right now while the crisis is still ongoing. When we talk about health equity, we mean everyone has the opportunity to attain their highest level of health.”

States can bring testing sites to minority neighborhoods and communities of color. In an effort to address racial health disparities through early intervention, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has opened five new COVID-19 testing sites, primarily located in minority communities. These testing facilities provide greater access to early intervention for people of color. 

States can improve health outcomes and reduce racial health disparities by engaging in culturally competent communication with communities of color. Language and cultural barriers can lead to delays in treatment. Hawaii has provided multiple COVID-19-related language resources to address language barriers. Providing culturally competent communication to communities of color can strengthen health literacy and reduce barriers to access, early intervention and treatment.

State leaders can connect constituents to assistance through local 211 sites to address social determinants of health. Social determinants of health are the social, behavioral and environmental factors that affect a person’s health. Access to essential goods and services including clean water, food and housing all play an important role in an individual’s overall health. Minority groups are disproportionately impacted by social determinants of health due to social and environmental factors. In his 2020 State of the State Address, California Gov. Gavin Newsom discussed the importance of housing security and affordability, as well as the effect of urban gentrification on communities of color.