U.S. Sen. Bob Casey says more resources are needed to fight the spread of the coronavirus among aging people of color, as numbers show COVID-19 is disproportionately hurting Black and Latino communities.
“Hispanic and Black individuals are three times as likely to become infected with the virus and ... twice as likely to die from the virus as whites,” said Casey during a Senate Special Committee on Aging hearing Tuesday morning.
Casey referenced federal data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing that across the country, the coronavirus has hit Black and Latino communities at a vastly higher rate than white communities. The data, which only covers cases through May 28, was first published by The New York Times earlier this month after the paper sued the CDC to obtain the numbers.
Casey said the country had an opportunity to take on the problem as Congress debates a relief package, which Senators hope to pass before returning home for their August recess. He called for a national testing strategy, more funding for personal protective equipment, and money to pay frontline health care workers caring for aging populations.
“We have a chance right now in the next three weeks to begin to address these injustices,” the Pennsylvania Democrat said. “We hope to put ourselves on the road to actually correcting these injustices and thereby to advance the cause of justice for communities of color all across America.”
“We must do all of this and more to protect aging Americans of color,” Casey added. But he noted that “the actions we take in the short term are not a solution to issues that have plagued communities of color for decades.”
Previous Congressional aid packages have helped keep afloat health care facilities that primarily serve these populations during the pandemic, including clinics in Pittsburgh. Witnesses at Tuesday's Senate hearing advocated for continued funding for these centers.
“The virus has become a flashpoint on racial inequities, financial inequities and social determinants of health,” said Dr. Rodney B. Jones, CEO of the East Liberty Family Health Care Center in Pittsburgh, who testified before the committee.
Jones said factors that exacerbate vulnerabilities to the virus include socioeconomic status, education, neighborhood and physical environment, employment, social support, and access to healthcare and housing.
“These social determinants of health, and the medical conditions that they bring about, are major factors contributing to the disproportionate number of low-income individuals and people of color testing positive and dying from COVID-19, along with age,” he said.
Jones said the CARES Act, which Congress passed early on in the pandemic, allowed the clinic to keep paying staff, and to see roughly 80 percent of its patients through telehealth services.
The East Liberty clinic is one of nearly 1,400 Federally Qualified Health Centers across the country that provide primary care services to low-income people for free or reduced cost. The Pittsburgh clinic serves more than 11,000 patients a year, over 75 percent of whom are not white.
Jones said that there will be other health impacts for non-white communities too, namely because the clinic is seeing fewer people than usual for important preventative care.
“In addition to the immediate impact that we are seeing from the virus, particularly the heightened rates of illness and death among older adults from racial and ethnic minorities, there are potential long-term implications to the virus on overall health and wellness of our patients," he said. "As a result of the pandemic, East Liberty Family Health Center providers have cared for one-third fewer patients in our medical department.”
Jones said clinics need stable and reliable funding in the future, as more people stand to lose their jobs and subsequently employer-sponsored health care. But what that funding will look like is far from certain.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday that a Republican proposal will be released soon, though there’s little common ground between the political parties on issues like extending the $600 a week pandemic unemployment assistance, or how much to spend on funding for testing. McConnell and the Trump administration have indicated they believe the relief bill should be roughly $1 trillion, while House Democrats passed a $3 trillion aid package months ago.