COLUMBUS, Ohio — The state of Ohio will soon launch a wide-ranging effort to extend coronavirus testing and health education into minority communities which have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to Gov. Mike DeWine, who announced the new initiative at his Thursday afternoon news briefing, the pandemic has exacerbated existing and well-known health disparities between white and non-white Ohioans.
“As governor of the state of Ohio, I am deeply concerned about this,” DeWine said. “This is something that should concern every single Ohioan.”
Although black Ohioans make up a little over 14% of the state’s total population, they comprise 26% of its known COVID-19 patients, 31% of its COVID-related hospitalizations and 17% of its COVID casualties.
Latinos make up 4% of Ohio’s population but 6% of its known coronavirus patients.
All of this data, DeWine added, is likely incomplete. Health professionals have long believed the real number of coronavirus cases is significantly higher than the number of recorded diagnoses. Factors like the availability of testing, the severity of symptoms and a patient’s level of knowledge about their condition can all prevent a sick person from recieving a diagnosis.
Groups that traditionally lack equitable access to healthcare are therefore at greater risk of going undiagnosed, DeWine said.
To address the gap, the state will partner with the Ohio Association of Community Health Centers to increase the testing capacity at 378 separate locations catering to low-income patients in underserved areas.
These health centers will also distribute “community wellness kits,” paper bags containing hand sanitizer, face masks and soap, to patients who need them.
“We know that this (response) can’t come just from government,” he said. “We know that this has to come from community-based organizations. We have an obligation, and I would say it is a moral obligation, to leave no Ohioans behind.”
The state will also enact a set of soon-to-be-released recommendations formulated by the Minority Health Strike Force, a 43-member task force that includes pastors, health department workers Cincinnati Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman.
Although the recommendations had not been publicized by the time DeWine spoke, Smitherman — making a remote appearance via video chat — said they focus on enhancing four key aspects of the state’s coronavirus response: messaging, testing, accessibility and collaboration.
“We must not shy away from working to correct these long-entrenched inequities among our fellow Ohio citizens,” DeWine said.
Racial disparities in COVID-19 diagnoses and deaths are not unique to Ohio. The virus has devastated traditionally black and Latino neighborhoods in New York City, according to data collected by the NYC health department. One nationwide analysis performed by the American Public Media Research Lab found that black Americans are three times as likely to die of the virus as their white counterparts.
The death rates for Asian-Americans, native Americans and Latino patients are lower but still disproportionately high, according to the same study — and all are higher than the death rate for white Americans.
"When white America catches a cold, black America catches pneumonia," think tank researcher Steven Brown told CNN Business in early April.
He went on to note that the knock-on effects of the pandemic would likely also hit black Americans harder, even if they did not personally become ill. Losing a job can be devastating for anyone. In families without assets, savings or financial support networks, it can be ruinous.
"It's going to be a lot harder for people to dig out once things get stable again," Brown said.