Covid-19 exposes unequal reality for New Hampshire minorities

Healthcare professionals share concerns ahead of federal relief package deadline

The Covid-19 pandemic is harming minorities in New Hampshire at a disproportionate rate, exposing the inequalities at play in the healthcare system, the economy and society in general, according to the healthcare professionals who spoke to U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan earlier this week.

“The disparities we are seeing with Covid are not new, but we are unable to unsee them anymore,” said Marie-Elizabeth Ramas, a family physician at Lamprey Health Care in Nashua.

Hassan met with public health officials through a Zoom call on Monday for a round table discussion on how the pandemic is harming people of color, and what can be done about the disparity. The Senate is set to begin work in the coming days on the next Covid-19 relief package.

“The racial disparities that people have known existed for a long time have really been exacerbated by the virus,” Hassan said.

Of the 6,203 people in New Hampshire who have tested positive for the potentially deadly respiratory illness, the large majority are white, more than 74% of the cases. However, minorities are getting the illness at a rate higher than their share of the population, according to Trinidad Tellez, director of the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services Office of Health Equity.

For example, while Latinos make up 3.9% of the state’s population, 632 Latinos have tested positive for the illness. That’s 11.9% of all the Covid-19 cases in the state. African American, who make up 1.4% of the state’s population, account for 302 cases, or 6% of all Covid-19 cases, according to numbers compiled by DHHS.

Tellez said the state is collecting data on race and ethnicity in 84 percent of all positive cases, 93 percent of hospitalizations, and 90 percent on all COVID-19 deaths. The data collection helps public health officials target where resources need to go. Bobbie Bagley, Nashua’s Public Health Director, said knowing where the virus was showing up allowed Bagley and her team to respond to clusters of infections.

“When we learned about this pandemic, one of the most important things that we focused on was how it would be impacting our populations,” Bagley said.

That meant being able to have staff who understood a particular culture and speak the language as they educated communities on testing, mask wearing, and how to isolate if needed.

“We need to make sure we have the data on  race and ethnicity to find where gaps exist and be able to provide education and tracing services in those population groups,” Bagley said.

Bagley and Jaime Hoebeke, the chief strategy officer with the  Manchester Health Department, both said they needed to help people with more than just the virus. In both cities, people in minority groups were often considered “essential” employees during the lockdown and were unable to take leave from their jobs. That left them more vulnerable to catching the virus and bringing it back to their families.

Bagley said there were many family outbreaks in Nashua, as people continued to go to work despite risks. Nashua’s staffers ended up bringing food to some families when a positive test required self isolation. For many of these families unemployment relief took too long and no work meant no income for groceries, Bagley said.

Hoebeke used organizations in Manchester like Hope Tabernacle, Central Latino and the Granite State Organizing Project to reach out to people within the vulnerable communities and help with translation and education. Manchester also used its  Covid-19 hotline to get information to people about assistance with rent, utilities and groceries.

“Since April we’ve been able to help 300 people in this regard,” Hoebeke said.

Manchester also deployed school nurses to neighborhoods to help connect people with services, Hoebeke said.

“They’re a familiar face to families in an uncertain time,” Hoebeke said.

Ramas said the pandemic is showing the problems of poverty and unequal access to services. As people struggle to feed their families, they risk getting in and making their families ill. But these people are not eligible for paid family leave, and most of them were required to work during the pandemic shut downs because they were considered essential.

“Families can’t care for themselves and still put food on the table,” Ramas said.

Tellez wants to see an army of community health workers who can go out into minority neighborhoods and communities to help with the pandemic in the fall. The community health workers will be able help people access testing, personal protective equipment, and financial aid.

Hassan said the New Hampshire health professionals like Bagley, Ramas, and Hoebeke have demonstrated how to take on the inequality challenges that Covid-19 is presenting to communities. Their example is one that can be used throughout the country.

“There are solutions to these challenges,” Hassan said. “This is about scaling it, supporting it and sticking with it.”

This article is being shared by partners of The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.