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Mills announces $1 million effort to address racial disparities in COVID-19

Maine has the nation's worst COVID-19 racial disparity; Black Mainers account for 1.4% of the population but account for 22% of total coronavirus cases.

AUGUSTA, Maine — In June when the Maine CDC noted that Maine has the nation's worst COVID-19 racial and ethnic disparities, Dr. Nirav Shah said it was unacceptable and something the Maine CDC is working to fix

On Thursday, the Governor Janet Mills administration announced steps it's now taking to address the disparities with a $1 million investment from the Coronavirus Relief Fund.

Black and African American Mainers represent about 1.4 percent of the total population in Maine, but over 22 percent of the COVID-19 cases in Maine where race is known. Hispanic or Latinx Mainers represent about 1.7 percent of the population in Maine, but 3.9 percent of cases where the ethnicity is known.

According to data, nationwide, Black people are dying at 2.5 times the rate of white people, accounting for 23% of COVID-19 deaths where race is known.

RELATED: Maine CDC: State population is 1.6% Black, yet 24% of Maine's COVID-19 cases are among Black community

The Mills administration says the funding, which comes through the Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), will expand education, prevention, and eligibility for services currently supported by the Coronavirus Relief Fund. Generally, it will include individuals referred to DHHS by communities at elevated risk of COVID-19. 

It will support temporary wrap-around services such as food as well as referrals to existing child care, health care, and income support programs. 

This funding will be provided directly to community-based organizations that are run and led by the communities they serve. Maine DHHS says it will issue an application for the “2020 COVID Health Equity Improvement Initiative” next week, after additional consultation with community-based organizations on its design.

The investment more than doubles the nearly $1 million already dedicated from the Coronavirus Relief Fund for social services and supports for people with COVID-19. This includes contracts with ten Community Action Program (CAP) agencies ($595,000), Wabanaki Public Health ($40,000), and Catholic Charities ($320,000). Catholic Charities, in partnership with community-based organizations, is supporting interpretation, translation, and cultural brokering services, including culturally appropriate support services. To date, 326 people have been referred for currently available services across Maine.

To date, the Department has undertaken a number of actions to address disparities in COVID-19, including:

  • Access to testing: The Department’s June 23 Standing Order for COVID-19 testing includes people at elevated risk of contracting COVID-19, including people of color, given the disparities noted above. The Department is working with health care and community organizations to increase testing at sites accessible to people at risk.
  • Case Investigation: The Maine CDC is increasing staff with language and cultural proficiency. Maine CDC has successfully connected to 95 percent of COVID cases in Maine residents. The individuals Maine CDC did not connect with were not disproportionately represented by racial or ethnic minorities (24 out of 112 confirmed cases from May 1 to July 21).
  • Contact Tracing: Maine CDC’s technology platform (Sara Alert) sends messages and check-ins to close contacts of people with COVID-19 in English, Spanish, French, and Somali. About 14 percent of people currently in the system have a primary language other than English. The Department pays for language translation, interpretation, and cultural brokers to assist Maine CDC. Interpretation services in other languages are available on an as-needed basis.
  • Education: The Department is helping to organize educational webinars for health care providers on racial and ethnic health disparities.

But Maine DHHS says more work by the Department is needed to address COVID disparities as well as the underlying causes of inequity that pre-date COVID-19. 

On July 24, the Department issued a Request for Information to get input on the Department’s organizational structure and contracting process. It is working with private partners to support a rapid community-participatory needs assessment with communities of color. And, the Department will focus on equity as it works to help the state recover from the pandemic.

“This investment represents our continued commitment to making progress on the unacceptable disparities in COVID-19 in Maine,” Maine DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said. “In addition to preventing the spread and limiting the impact of the virus, our response must include working in partnership with organizations trusted by the communities they serve and addressing the underlying problems that contribute to this disparity.”

RELATED: COVID-19 Rent Relief Program expanded to help prevent evictions

RELATED: Real-time Maine coronavirus updates: Thursday, July 30