The novel coronavirus is gripping minority populations in Anne Arundel County at higher rates, a result of decades of unequal access to housing, health care and other preventative health institutions, health officials say.
The county Health Department is staffing a three-person office dedicated to studying and collecting county data on how race and ethnicity affect health outcomes, a result of the decision last year to declare racism a public health concern.
The scientific focus can lead to policy reforms that address disparities, such as COVID-19 sickening black and Hispanic Marylanders at significantly higher portions.
Krystle Coldiron, director of assessment and planning at the department, said gathering demographic data presents medical experts with more knowledge on how to control disease and prevent poor health conditions.
Emerging race and ethnic census data on COVID-19, which the county collects when tracing each person confirmed positive with novel coronavirus, shows Hispanic, Latino and African American communities are suffering from the virus at staggering rates.
Coldiron said county data shows Hispanic and Latinos account for 32% of all coronavirus cases, despite making up 8% of the population. White residents account for 40.5% of coronavirus cases and make up 67% of the population.
In a county with more than 570,000 residents, African Americans account for 24% of total coronavirus cases and 16.5% of the county’s population. There are 4,210 confirmed coronavirus cases in Anne Arundel County as of Saturday.
Those statistics mirror a national picture, in which black and Hispanics overrepresent hospitalized patients and COVID-19 deaths, according to the CDC. A CDC study found out of 580 hospital patients, 33% were black, compared to 18% in the community, and 8% were Hispanic, compared to 14% in the community.
Federal health officials announced new guidance Thursday that laboratories will be required to report race and ethnic data starting Aug. 1.
Racial and ethnic minorities are more likely to live in multi-generational households in densely populated areas where residential segregation bars medical care, according to the CDC. People in some racial and ethnic groups have a higher rate of working in labor industries, thus impeding the ability to quarantine.
Late last year, County Executive Steuart Pittman and Health Officer Nilesh Kalyanaraman declared racism a public health issue. The classification makes resources available for underserved residents of color who, among other barriers, have disproportionately lower access to preventive medicine and experience lower-quality care.
The new Office of Health Equity and Racial Justice, established in Pittman’s 2021 budget, is in the process of hiring a director. The council is considering cuts to the budget before passing it this month.
Pete Smith, a former county councilman who now serves as military veterans liaison for the county, proposed a resolution to declare racism as a state of emergency when he represented the District One in 2017.
Racism, and the lasting negative health conditions it causes, could be combated similar to the nation’s opioid crisis, Smith said. The health crisis declaration led to the creation of programs focused on educating and preventing overdose and substance abuse disorder across the county.
Individuals with substance abuse disorder can report to an alternative drug court following an arrest for drug-related offenses. Smith said that alternative has potential applications for race relations, where people charged with racially-motivated crimes could attend educational programs on race and empathy.
By working through an equity lens, local governments can propose changes to long-standing practices and policies tailored to benefit white majorities. Smith, a black man and Anne Arundel County council’s sole minority representative at the time, didn’t have enough votes to pass the state of emergency resolution.
"It’s important for governments to understand the reality on the ground for various subgroup within our community and be able to address some of their issues,” Smith said.
Health employees in the newly funded equity and racial justice office will collect thorough data that measures social inequities lived by different social and racial groups, such as the scarce availability of neighborhood grocery stores, located in a walking distance, that sell fresh food and produce.
“A lot of chronic diseases that are playing out in communities of color, such as diabetes, obviously that environmental racism, that enhanced structure, is perpetuating some of these other public health issues,” Coldiron said.
As part of initiative specifically for COVID-19 and racial equity, contact tracers monitoring positive COVID-19 cases account for a person’s age, sex, race and ethnicity, along with that person’s access to resources needed to beat the pervasive virus, such as food and medicine.
Based on that information, the county can tackle inequities in opportunities for care — like the ability to get a COVID-19 test — by implementing walk-up COVID-19 testing sites in communities rocked by the respiratory disease.
Health department workers are also working with recognized church leaders in the community to get health information about the pandemic shared among residents in a way that’s better understood and easily digested. A video, narrated in part by Multicultural Affairs Officer Sergio Polanco, will launch next week.