Help for Black residents is goal of new $3.4M COVID-19 health program

Help for Black residents is goal of new $3.4M COVID-19 health program

Rice, Jawando spearhead effort to address health disparities

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Montgomery County Council Members Craig Rice, left, and Will Jawando spearheaded the creation of a COVID-19 response program that will target the county's Black community, which has been disproportionately affected.

Photos from Montgomery County

Black residents — who have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 — are the focus of a new Montgomery County health program in response to the pandemic.

According to the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services, Black residents experience the highest death rate from the virus.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the county’s reported death rates per 100,000 people are:
● Black: 87.8 (169 deaths)
● White: 76.6 (346 deaths)
● Hispanic: 71.5 (148 deaths)
● Asian: 43.4 (70 deaths)

The remaining 22 deaths are listed as “other” for race.

The roughly $3.4 million program, which was the County Council unanimously approved on Tuesday, was spearheaded by Council Members Craig Rice and Will Jawando, the only Black council members.

The program was developed in partnership with the executive committee of the African American Health Program, which aims to eliminate health disparities and provides free health services in the county.

The initiative is similar to the nearly $5.6 million Por Nuestra Salud y Bienestar (For Our Health and Wellbeing) program that targets Latino communities that also have been disproportionately affected. In July, 73% of the positive coronavirus tests in the county were from Hispanic residents.

The African American Health Program Executive Committee recommended several components for the program. They included culturally and linguistically competent testing and contact tracing, a communication strategy, education, mental health support services, targeted food assistance, support for a Black Physician Network, and assistance with co-pays.

The response would be concentrated in ZIP code areas where Black residents make up at least 20% of the population, with a specific focus on 20903, 20904 and 20906, in the Silver Spring area. A permanent testing site and pop-up testing will be available through the program.

The committee has found that Black residents experience worse outcomes of the virus because of chronic health conditions, socioeconomic factors, homelessness and housing instability.

Testing and contact tracing for the program would be covered through Federal Emergency Management Agency reimbursements. All other costs will be covered through different federal funds.

As part of the council’s approval, County Executive Marc Elrich is required to provide a written progress report every two weeks between Aug. 28 and Jan. 1.

Rice said health disparities in the Black community needed to be addressed. The fact that Black residents are dying at a much higher rate than other residents “says something,” he said.

It also speaks to the council’s action in declaring racism as a public health crisis, Rice said.

“This is a no-brainer,” he said.

He said he’s had family members die from the coronavirus.

“The reason why I care about this issue so much is because to lose your life for something that could be prevented is one of the worst of all deaths,” he said.

Jawando echoed Rice and said Black residents’ long-term, chronic health conditions are based in a system of racism. The data are stark, he said.

“This is something that will lay the foundation for long-term addressing of these health disparities going forward, connecting our Black residents to primary care,” he said. “I’m really excited we’re taking this step in the midst of a crisis, but having the forethought to say that we need to address this long-term.”

Council Member Andrew Friedson said the health crisis has shown the “cracks” in the county’s social safety net, health systems and other services.

“It has put a light [on] things that have typically been in the shadows — the discrepancies in health, the discrepancies in outcomes, the discrepancies in access and opportunity with health care and, frankly, everything,” he said.

Council Member Nancy Navarro said that if the health disparities aren’t addressed in the community, it would affect the rest of the county.

“Our county really needs this,” she said. “Because it is not just about addressing the issues in a community that’s disproportionately affected for the sake of that community. This is public health that we’re talking about.”

Briana Adhikusuma can be reached at briana.adhikusuma@bethesdamagazine.com.

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