Special to Iredell Free News
RALEIGH — The rate of COVID-19 infections is once again disproportionately impacting Black and Hispanic North Carolinians. Since December 26, the rate of infections has been twice as high among the Black population as compared to the white population and as much as 57 percent higher among the Hispanic population as compared to the non-Hispanic population, according to an analysis of positive cases reported to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.
Case rates in the Black community were lower than whites at the beginning of December but rose much more quickly with the Omicron variant. With greater rates of infection, disparities are now also showing up in hospitalizations. From January 1-17, hospitalization rates were highest among Blacks, followed closely by American Indians, at nearly double the rate of whites.
“Vaccines, boosters and masks are the best tools that we have to prevent severe illness, hospitalization and death from COVID-19,” said NCDHHS Secretary Kody H. Kinsley. “Equity has been embedded in our pandemic response from the beginning, and we continue to focus on delivering life-saving tools to historically marginalized populations during this surge.”
NCDHHS is delivering one of those tools, N95 masks, to community organizations, childcare programs and long-term care facilities across the state. These higher quality masks provide the best protection from the Omicron variant of COVID-19.
Of the 4 million delivered so far, 2 million masks were given to local health departments to distribute to community partners for local jails, for providers for homeless services, for senior centers and at community-based events. This is in addition to regular distribution of N95 masks to farmworker communities.
“Historically marginalized populations have been disproportionately affected throughout the pandemic, not just during this surge,” said NCDHHS Chief Health Equity Officer Victor Armstrong. “We are making great efforts to increase access to vaccines and boosters, and I urge people in these communities to get their vaccines, make sure they have their second shots, and to get booster shots when eligible.”
Two programs are connecting historically marginalized populations to vaccines: Healthier Together: Health Equity Action Network and NCDHHS’ Community Health Worker program. Healthier Together is a public-private partnership between the N.C. Counts Coalition and NCDHHS. The partnership hires regional health equity teams to support community-based organizations, coordinates vaccine clinics that are easily accessible and in trusted locations, and provides grants to local community organizations to do outreach, provide transportation and eliminate vaccine access barriers in historically marginalized communities. Healthier Together partner organizations are also requesting and distributing N95 masks. In December alone, Healthier Together and its network of community-based organizations worked with 96,000 people, connecting 4,300 people to vaccine appointments, 1,800 people to community health workers, and 2,600 people to transportation.
The Community Health Workers (CHWs), a central pillar of the NCDHHS response for historically marginalized populations, are trusted community members who connect underserved or minority communities with health and social services. NCDHHS contracted seven vendors across the state to serve all 100 counties, hiring over 500 CHWs to help vulnerable communities respond to the pandemic, improve population health, and reduce disparities. More than 90 percent of these CHWs identify as Black or Latinx. During this surge, CHWs have supported education on COVID-19 and vaccines, testing and vaccine events, PPE distribution and referrals to address social support needs. Since its inception in August 2020, the COVID-19 CHW Program has reached over 1.4 million individuals, referred 145,000 for social supports, and scheduled more than 47,000 for COVID-19 vaccination.
To help families be able to safely quarantine or isolate because of COVID-19, NCDHHS’ Support Services Program provides food assistance to people in 34 counties in partnership with the Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina. Since launching in October 2021, more than 553 households have received a total of 3,490 food boxes. The program is in its second phase and previously served 41,800 households with groceries, meals, financial relief payments, medication delivery and more.
NCDHHS also facilitates Historically Marginalized Populations Workgroups, consisting of NCDHHS employees and external partners, to decrease disparities and improve COVID-19 outcomes by directly addressing barriers to vaccine and testing access and working to ensure response efforts meet the needs of individual communities.
Each of these programs builds from NCDHHS’ public outreach and education effort, which works to deliver accurate information to historically marginalized communities from people and in places they trust. Frequent local outreach, for example, engaged faith leaders to provide vaccine information to 200 African American churches in eastern North Carolina, worked with La Grande NC to vaccinate people at the Mexico-Ecuador game in Charlotte and set up nine walk-in Family Vaccination Sites across the state after vaccines for children aged 5-11 were approved.
NCDHHS leaders have appeared in interviews, recorded PSAs or participated in special events with networks ranging from Azteca America, to the Motor Racing Network to the NC News Network. African American influencers received posters, recorded messages and social media content to help share the message statewide. NCDHHS’ COVID-19 vaccine communications in English and Spanish address questions relayed to us by our community partners with answers that are informed by research.
A key driver of North Carolina’s work is its commitment to data accountability and equity. The state has been nationally recognized for its race and ethnicity data quality. Throughout the pandemic, NCDHHS has prioritized data transparency to hold itself and its partners accountable to promote equity in COVID-19 prevention and response efforts. Demographic data is reported publicly in the weekly COVID-19 dashboard.
For more information about COVID-19 vaccines in North Carolina or to find a vaccine location, visit MySpot.nc.gov or call the state’s COVID-19 Vaccine Help Center for free at 888-675-4567.