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Kamala Harris’s new bill would set up a task force to address racial disparities in coronavirus response

The task force would advise FEMA and Congress on how to combat these inequities.

Sen. Kamala Harris in Atlanta, Georgia, on November 20, 2019.
Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

A new bill from Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), the Covid-19 Racial and Ethnic Disparities Task Force Act, would set up a task force to address the racial disparities that have emerged in coronavirus cases and deaths.

In recent months, data tracking the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted an alarming pattern when it comes to who’s affected: According to state-level numbers, people of color are disproportionately dying from the virus.

This pattern, the result of inequities in health care access and systemic discrimination within the health care system, has been evident in early demographic data that’s been released by various places across the country. In Louisiana, black people make up 57 percent of confirmed coronavirus deaths, and 33 percent of the state’s overall population. In Michigan, black people make up 40 percent of coronavirus fatalities, and 13.6 percent of the state’s overall population.

There’s been a serious lag in the disclosure of such breakdowns across the board. According to a tracker by Johns Hopkins University, 41 states are currently releasing data on race and the number of cases they’ve detected. In April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released preliminary federal data, though the agency noted that it was incomplete.

Harris’s bill requires the Department of Health and Human Services to establish a team of health care policy experts, regional leaders, and federal officials that would use demographic data about who’s affected by the coronavirus pandemic to develop funding and policy prescriptions for FEMA and other agencies. The bill wouldn’t just stop at data collection; the idea is to use the information to better inform the response to the pandemic.

“The COVID-19 Racial and Ethnic Disparities Task Force Act is a necessary step to fully understand the impact of this virus in the hardest hit communities, and make targeted investments that correspond with their unique needs,” Harris said in a statement.

The bill faces a tough road to becoming law; Senate Republicans have been hostile to most Democratic ideas on tackling the coronavirus crisis aside from rescue for small businesses, and Harris’s bill is unlikely to attract the necessary support from across the aisle. However, some other prominent Democrats, including Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Michael Bennet (D-CO), and Sherrod Brown (D-OH), are cosponsoring the legislation.

What Harris’s bill would do

Harris’s bill would bring together representatives from different groups that are involved with combating the pandemic, and set up a task force focused on identifying places where there are racial and ethnic disparities in the number of people being tested, diagnosed, and hospitalized for coronavirus. The group would then use this information to provide weekly recommendations to FEMA for disaster aid and the allocation of supplies such as personal protective equipment, testing kits, and ventilators.

“We need to convene health care and policy experts with local leaders in order to allocate the necessary resources to meet everyone’s needs — especially in communities that have historically suffered from unfair and insufficient response from the government during times of crisis,” says Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, in a statement about the bill. Task forces have already been established in multiple places including New York City and Boston, in an effort to combat the disproportionate impacts coronavirus has had on residents of color.

The most recent stimulus bill that Congress passed, the Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act, requires the HHS Secretary to provide Congress with a report on the demographics of people who have been tested and diagnosed with coronavirus, within 21 days of the legislation’s enactment. A bill from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the Equitable Data and Disclosure Act, would also require HHS to post daily data updates on coronavirus cases, broken out by race, ethnicity, and other demographic traits.

Harris’s legislation adds to these efforts in an attempt to set up a team that would direct agency funds to combat such inequities, once more comprehensive data sets are available. The bill would also establish a permanent Infectious Disease Racial and Ethnic Disparities Task Force when the pandemic ends, in order to continue monitoring inequities within the health care system.

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