After Gov. John Bel Edwards announced in April that 70 percent of Louisianians who had died of COVID-19 were Black, he established the Louisiana COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force to look at the racial inequities that had led to the lopsided death toll. According to the state’s latest figures, Black Louisianians now account for about 52 percent of the state’s COVID-19 deaths, but that number remains wildly disproportionate to Black people’s 33 percent share of the population.
The task force has now submitted to the governor a report that includes recommendations on how to improve COVID-19 testing for vulnerable communities, how to better monitor the disease’s impact on marginalized groups and how to better protect those who are incarcerated and in nursing homes. The report also recommends policy changes that would reduce inequities and suggests ways to help faith-based and community organizations get reliable public health information out to the communities they serve.
Christina Stephens, a spokeswoman for Gov. Edwards, said in an email Tuesday that the governor hasn’t yet read all of the report. “However,” she said, “the governor is supportive of the work and expertise of the members of the Health Equity Task Force and its subcommittees. He will review all of their recommendations and come up with a plan for which ones our administration can take action on.”
The subcommittees that focused on testing and data and analysis suggest a widespread and well-publicized testing plan that would catch infections early and an improved contact-tracing program that more reliably finds people who’ve interacted with people who’ve testing positive for COVID-19. And, the task force says, the state musn’t shy away from collecting demographic information those who are infected and those who die.[Read the Louisiana COVID-19 HEALTH EQUITY TASK FORCE report here.]
“Pandemics and economic recessions exacerbate disparities that ultimately hurt us all,” the task force report says. “Therefore, state and local leaders cannot design equitable response and recovery strategies without monitoring COVID’s impacts among socially and economically marginalized groups.”
The task force’s subcommittee on prisons wants Edwards to establish a public health monitor to oversee the more than 100 correctional facilities in Louisiana and wants him to help reduce the state’s prison population by immediately granting clemency to the more than 160 people the state’s pardon board has already voted to release. That subcommittee also recommends that the state release all children in juvenile detention centers as long as it is safe for them to return home.
The state’s prison system and jails have not been willing to release prisoners en masse, but the task force report argues that a reduction in Louisiana’s prison and jail population could allow sheriffs and prison officials to better space out inmates and detainees. The subcommittee looking at prisons also recommends that infected inmates be treated off-site at guarded facilities and that sick inmates not be put into isolation because isolating inmates is a regular form of punishment.
Nursing home residents have suffered more than any other cohort from COVID-19. As of June, 1,152 nursing home residents had died from the disease, approximately 40 percent of all the state’s deaths. In some parishes, deaths in nursing homes account for over half of COVID-19 deaths, the report says. But the task force members looking at nursing home cases said they didn’t have the data that would let them know how people of different races, ethnicities and genders had fared during “Without knowing the demographics of NH residents, it will be challenging to discern inequities among the NH population,” they said.
Among the many policy recommendations the task force makes, the most significant ones call for Louisiana to allow nurse practitioners to provide healthcare without the supervision of a doctor and for the state to provide free COVID-19 treatments for people who are not covered by insurance. Freeing nurse practitioners to work on their own, the task force suggests, would expand access to care where it’s lacking and increase the number of places Medicaid recipients could seek treatment.
Raymond Jetson, a Baton Rouge nonprofit leader, who co-chaired the task force subcommittee on community engagement said in a Tuesday interview that “very often governments and organizations do what they call outreach or engagement but it does not really connect with the people in ways that impact their behaviors.” But Jetson said that effective community outreach is essential during a pandemic where “non pharmaceutical interventions,” such as handwashing and face masks “limit the spread of the disease.”
Jetson’s subcommittee called the “Roadmap to Recovery” published by Power Coalition for Equity and Justice an example of “exemplary” community engagement work.
Ashley Shelton, the coalition’s executive director, said the group filled its homepage with information about COVID-19 and how residents could access resources. But because there are places in Louisiana with limited access to the internet, she said, her organization also printed up that information and gave them to churches who distributed the information to their members. Once it was clear that Black people were dying at much higher rates than their counterparts, Shelton said, “it was really clear that we had to get in front of this some some way somehow and make sure that folks had access to the best information.”
Reporters Julie O’Donoghue, Wesley Muller and JC Canicosa and editor Jarvis DeBerry contributed to this report.