Cooper announces task force to address COVID-19 in communities of color

DISPROPORTIONATE IMPACT: In Buncombe County, nearly 22% of COVID-19 cases have been reported in residents who are black, indigenous and people of color, despite making up 8.4% of the county's residents. Screen capture courtesy of the Buncombe County Department of Health and Human Services

Amid heightened racial tensions and mass protests across the state, Gov. Roy Cooper signed a new executive order on June 4 to address the “disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color.”

The order establishes the Andrea Harris Social, Economic, Environmental and Health Equity Task Force to “create economic stability, eliminate health disparities and achieve environmental justice.” The task force, named after co-founder of the N.C. Institute of Minority Economic Development Andrea Harris, who passed away in May, will be led by Machelle Sanders, secretary of the state Department of Administration. 

The task force identifies five focus areas: access to health care for underserved communities, enhanced patient engagement in health care settings, economic opportunities in business development and employment, environmental justice and inclusion and educational opportunities for communities of color. 

To address economic disparities, the task force will work closely with the N.C. Pandemic Recovery Office and the Historically Underutilized Business Office to ensure relief funds are allocated to minority-owned businesses across the state. 

“Before the murder of George Floyd and the country heard yet again cries for racial justice, we knew COVID-19 was disproportionately impacting communities of color,” Cooper said. “The statistics we’re seeing are alarming and not at all acceptable.” 

Mullendore emphasizes racial disparities in Buncombe COVID-19 cases

Ahead of Cooper’s announcement, Dr. Jennifer Mullendore, Buncombe County’s interim health director, spent the majority of a June 4 press conference discussing the county’s high COVID rates among communities of color. 

Of Buncombe’s 373 COVID-19 cases, 81 (roughly 22%) have been reported among residents who are black, indigenous and people of color, a group that makes up only 8.4% of the county’s population. Hispanic residents account for 93 cases (about 25%) while making up only 6.7% of county residents. 

“This uneven impact of COVID-19 on black, indigenous and people of color in our county, compared with the white population, also is being seen across the state and country, where it is also showing up as a disproportionate number of hospitalizations and deaths,” Mullendore explained. “Structural racism and the inequities it leads to in housing, employment, income, education and other social determinants of health result in these worse health outcomes.” 

To help address these disparities, county health officials have targeted community-based COVID-19 testing in areas most likely to reach vulnerable populations, Mullendore said. More than 350 people have been tested at the free walk-up sites, resulting in nine confirmed cases. Test results from the last few days are pending, she added. 

Next week, community-based testing will be available at Rock Hill Church in the Shiloh community on Tuesday, June 9, from 1-4 p.m.; the Spake Real Estate parking lot off of Hendersonville Road on Wednesday, June 10, from 1-4 p.m.; and at the ABCCM Crisis Ministry in Hominy Valley on Thursday, June 11, from 1-4 p.m. Language translation services will be available at all locations.

In other news

  • Asheville City Schools will offer free summer meal sites for children under the age of 18 on weekdays through Friday, Aug. 7. Meals will be offered at Pisgah View Apartments from 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m and Crowell Apartments from 1:15-1:45 p.m. Grab-and-go meals will be offered at Klondyke Apartments, Herb Watts Park and Hillcrest Apartments from 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. A drive-thru meal pickup will be held at Isaac Dickson Elementary School from 1-3 p.m. 
  • The city of Asheville will resume online board and commission meetings on Monday, June 15. All meetings will be hosted virtually and streamed simultaneously on the city’s Public Engagement Hub and YouTube channel. After COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, virtual meetings may continue to supplement in-person meetings to increase public participation. 
  • Richmond, Va.-based MEDIKO, Inc. is the new medical provider for the Buncombe County Detention Facility, announced Buncombe County Sheriff Quentin Miller in a June 3 press release. Staffing at the jail will include a registered nurse and licensed practical nurse in the facility 24 hours a day, as well as a dentist and dental assistant working one day per week.

 

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About Molly Horak
Molly is a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and writer for Mountain Xpress. Her work has appeared in the Citizen-Times, News and Observer and Charlotte Observer. Follow me @molly_horak

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