Black Vermonters hardest hit by Covid-19, new data shows
Photo by Emma Cotton/VTDigger
Covid-19 cases among Black adults and children are alarmingly higher than white Vermonters, recently released data from the Vermont Department of Health shows.
The report looked at Covid cases reported in the state from March 5, 2020, through Aug. 11, 2021.
Black adult Vermonters have an estimated rate of 937 positive cases per 10,000 people, compared to 359 cases per 10,000 people who are white and non-Hispanic.
The rate for Black children is almost 1,000 per 10,000 people, compared to 370 for white children.
From crowded households to occupational exposure, structural racism has driven these disparities, said Anne Sosin, a rural health researcher and policy fellow at Dartmouth College’s Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy, who called the findings “not surprising.”
“During the whole pandemic, Vermont has had consistent racial disparity in infection rates,” Sosin said.
Given that the Delta variant is twice as transmissible as the original strain of the virus, Delta can “amplify the linked impacts of crowded working, living, and learning settings,” she said. Many essential workers live in crowded housing, Sosin said, allowing for disparities to eventually impact children in schools.
Many Black Americans work in frontline jobs, said Sen. Kesha Ram, pointing to examples such as environmental services workers, nurses, and nursing staff in long-term care facilities.
“The question becomes, how well are they supported in those jobs to make sure that they have protective gear, that they're listened to, that they are given the conditions that will support a healthy work environment,” said Ram, a Chittenden Democrat.
Ram recalled an anecdote she heard within the Somali community, where a Somali man was allegedly fired after asking for gloves from his employer.
“It spread within the Somali community that it could be economically dangerous to ask for [personal protective equipment],” she said.
Black Vermonters and New Americans might be more afraid to advocate for themselves because of these types of repercussions, Ram said, calling it one example “where something that existed before is exacerbated by people's experience in the pandemic.”
Sosin said that when significant Covid-19 restrictions were in place, many people could work from home. Without restrictions, exposure increases within communities.
Sosin said the state did not prioritize equity in its vaccination strategy earlier in the pandemic.
Ram echoed Sosin’s acknowledgment of late efforts to address disparities.
“If we’re looking at the information from over the past year, we’re still going to see a disparity because there was a lack of attention to interpreting the kinds of support that were needed for specific communities,” Ram said.
In June 2020, Gov. Phil Scott signed an executive order instating the Racial Equity Task Force in Vermont. The group –– chaired by Executive Director Xusana Davis –– was tasked with “[evaluating] structures of support for racially diverse populations” in light of Covid-19.
In April, Scott coordinated with state health experts to open vaccine registration to BIPOC community members and their households to address “unacceptable” disparities.
Beyond Covid-19, Ram hopes that efforts to recognize and address disparities in health care will continue.
“Hopefully, the Department of Health uses what it's continuing to learn about disparities to improve health outcomes for Black and brown Vermonters in all other realms of health care. We need to start attacking every disparity with the same honesty that we are the Covid-19 pandemic,” she said.