SUFFOLK COUNTY

CALARCO: Addressing health disparities amid the pandemic

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Over the past year, our country has had to face some difficult realizations, including the hard truth that systemic racism is still pervasive today. We have seen it at play in housing, in hiring, and in policing. We have also seen it at play somewhere many may not think about: in health care.

COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on Black and minority communities in many aspects, from unemployment and education to health and wellbeing. Locally, there have been efforts to ensure that vaccines reach communities with minority populations. Awareness efforts around the theme of being “vaccine ready” have intensified in April as part of National Minority Health Month, which has historically served as a time to raise awareness about health disparities that affect racial and ethnic minority populations.

Sadly, health equity is a very real issue that has only been exacerbated by the pandemic. The shortcomings in our country’s health system that have existed for too long are now front and center amid this public health emergency, and one issue that advocates are deeply worried about is maternal health.

About 700 to 900 new and expectant mothers in the U.S. die each year from pregnancy-related causes, and experts say that many of these deaths are preventable, according to published

reports. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that Black women – along with American Indian and Alaska Native women – are approximately two or three times as likely to die from pregnancy-related causes as white women are, and advocates are worried that these disparate rates of maternal morbidity and mortality of mothers of color are only being worsened by the pandemic.

It is a crisis that is being looked at by governments at all levels, from our nation’s capital to the legislature in Suffolk County. President Biden this month took several actions to advance health equity in the United States, including by issuing a presidential proclamation recognizing the importance of addressing the crisis of Black maternal mortality and morbidity. His administration’s plans to reduce maternal mortality and morbidity include investing $200 million for implicit bias training for healthcare providers and to bolster Maternal Mortality Review Committees; providing $6 billion for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC); and increasing funding for the HHS Office for Civil Rights by 24 percent to ensure that civil rights in healthcare are protected.

Here in Suffolk County, I was proud to support two recent initiatives put forth by my colleague Legis. Jason Richberg to study these important

issues. A Coronavirus Review Task Force is studying the economic, health, social, housing, and labor impacts of COVID-19 in Suffolk County, and part of its mission is to specifically determine which communities in the county were the most deeply affected. Additionally, a Maternal Morbidity and Mortality Task Force will study the rates of and trends in maternal morbidity and mortality in Suffolk County with a particular focus on women of color and aftercare. Members of this task force will include a wide array of experts including medical school and hospital representatives, community members, and healthcare workers including a doctor, a nurse, a midwife, and a doula who provide services in a majority-minority community in Suffolk County. The insight these professionals will bring to the table will be invaluable as we look to address these issues head-on.

Implicit bias, systemic barriers, and racial inequity – the same factors that are at play in our housing and job markets – are at play in health care, and the consequences are literally a matter of life and death. These issues are multifaceted, and our approach to solving them must be as well. We in the Suffolk County Legislature remain committed to fighting for fairness in all aspects, health care included.

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