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An intubated patient inside a negative pressure room in the COVID-19 ICU at a hospital West in Joplin, Mo., on Aug. 3.
An intubated patient inside a negative pressure room in the COVID-19 ICU at a hospital West in Joplin, Mo., on Aug. 3. (Angus Mordant/Bloomberg)

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration plans to announce Wednesday that it will invest an additional $785 million into efforts to stymie the spread of the coronavirus in communities that have been hardest hit and are at highest risk of death and disease - people of color, people with disabilities, those living in rural areas and low-income communities.

This new infusion of money builds on billions of dollars invested in equity-focused programs, such as expanding access to vaccines at community health centers and supporting health workers, that have helped decrease disparities in death rates and closed racial and ethnic gaps in vaccination rates among adults.

"It's just remarkable. We're some place different than we were at the beginning of the pandemic," said Marcella Nunez-Smith, chair of President Joe Biden's COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force and associate dean for health equity research at Yale University. "The work of the task force from the beginning has been thinking just about how to disrupt that predictability ... who's going to get harmed first, who's going to get harmed worst."

The pandemic hit with an unequal impact, with Black, Latino and Native American people twice as likely to die of the coronavirus as white people. But a recent analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that at different points in time, including this current phase of the delta wave, disparities in deaths and infections have narrowed for Black and Latino people compared to white people.

That was not the case for American Indian and Alaska Native peoples during this most recent wave of the pandemic, said Samantha Artiga, vice president and director of the racial equity and health policy program at Kaiser Family Foundation.

"For American Indian and Alaska Native people, that disparity widened again and has not come back down the way we've seen" for other groups, Artiga said, adding that more research is needed to better understand why.

The task force issued its final report to the White House Office on COVID-19 Response on Wednesday, and the additional funding is a direct response to its recommendations to help eradicate health disparities and support underserved communities.

Missing race and ethnicity data, mistrust of a medical establishment that has a legacy of mistreatment, and practical barriers such as a lack of pharmacies, hospitals, providers and transportation have all hindered the pandemic response and helped fuel the disparities that have become a hallmark of the American health-care system.

The task force, over the past 10 months, has tackled the issues in hundreds of interim recommendations that focused on equitable access to vaccines, personal protective equipment, testing, therapies and treatments. The proposals have considered what the pandemic will leave behind, ensuring people of color have access to resources to combat long-haul COVID, mental and behavioral health needs, as well as discrimination and xenophobia in health care.

More than 80% of the interim recommendations have been fulfilled, according to the administration, and the final report groups the remaining recommendations into five priorities that include strengthening the data ecosystem, increased accountability and access, and ensuring the health care workforce looks like the communities it serves.

"There's more work to do. We're still in a pandemic," Nunez-Smith said. "I fear complacency. Things can change so quickly, and they have before."


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