Black Caucus Moves to Front and Center in COVID-19 Fight

By Ashley Benkarski

NASHVILLE, TN — Dr. James Hildreth, President of Meharry Medical College has been helping officials navigate Nashville’s novel coronavirus outbreak and recently assisted the Congressional Black Caucus in crafting legislation requiring the federal government to collect and release demographic data, including race and ethnicity, of COVID-19 testing, treatment and fatality rates.

Research over the last few months revealed a significant impact of the virus on black and brown communities when compared to their white neighbors. Underlying conditions such as hypertension, heart disease and diabetes disproportionately affect these communities, leaving them at higher risk of serious complications caused by the virus.

Rep. Ayanna Pressley’s office released a statement pointing to the trend of higher reported COVID-19 cases and fatalities of minorities across the country despite making up less of their respective residential populations. In Louisiana, for example, African Americans accounted for about 70 percent of reported deaths last month despite making up around 32 percent of the state’s population.

Hildreth, a member of Mayor John Cooper’s coronavirus task force, said the focus of officials must be on increasing contact tracing and testing.

Scientists have discovered that as more people are getting tested, the symptoms of COVID-19 range further than the dry cough, fever, and headache first reported and now include complications affecting the brain, gastrointestinal tract, kidneys and heart. This is no surprise to Hildreth, who said that viruses such as this often attack multiple organs within the body. Early widespread testing and contact tracing would have shown a pattern of these symptoms that would have helped stymie the virus’s spread and gotten more infected people diagnosed and treated earlier.

He expressed concern over the subdued response of the nation to the spread of the virus and lag in testing when almost twice as many Americans have died from it in the last four months than the nearly 59,000 killed during the 12-year-long Vietnam War. Is America willing to trade lives for the economy, he asked?

“I’m proud to sponsor the Equitable Data Collection and Disclosure on COVID-19 Act because it’s past time the Department of Health and Human Services begins collecting race-specific data on this pandemic nationwide so that we can fully understand the scope of the crisis and respond,” Pressley said. “We need to ensure that communities of color have adequate access to testing, treatment and economic support.”

Introduced April 14, the bill would require HHS to use all available surveillance systems to post updated, disaggregated data daily on the Centers for Disease Control website. This data includes race, ethnicity, sex, age, socioeconomic status, disability status, county, and other demographic information. HHS would also be responsible for 1) providing data related to COVID-19 testing, including the number of people tested and the number of positives recorded, 2) data related to treatment, including hospitalizations and intensive care unit admissions and duration, and 3) data related to COVID-19 outcomes, including fatalities.

“This pandemic has exposed the deficiencies and inequalities of our healthcare system that Black communities know all too well, and have experienced for generations … [the Act] will put us one step closer to providing practical solutions to closing the inequalities in the healthcare system, which includes robust funding and resources to the hardest-hit communities,” said Rep. Karen Bass, chair of the CBC.

Additionally the Act would “establish an inter-agency commission to make recommendations in real time on improving data collection, transparency and responding equitably to this crisis” as well as require the Department of Health and Human Services to “provide a summary of the final statistics and a report to Congress within 60 days after the end of the public health emergency,” said Pressley, who helped spearhead the bill with Congresswomen Robin Kelly, chair of the CBC’s Health Braintrust and Rep. Bass. They were joined by more than 85 colleagues including former 2020 Democratic Presidential candidates Sens. Cory Booker, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren.

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