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Biden Advisory Board Co-Chair Says Addressing Health Disparities Will Be A Key Focus


The burden of COVID-19 has disproportionately affected communities of color. Black and Hispanic people are more than two and a half times as likely to contract COVID-19 and more than twice as likely to die from the virus. Now the co-chair of President-elect Biden's COVID-19 Advisory Board says addressing these health disparities will be a key focus of its work. NPR's Maria Godoy has more.

MARIA GODOY, BYLINE: For months now, we've been hearing that to curb the spread of the coronavirus, the U.S. needs to focus on testing, contact tracing and isolating cases. Dr. Marcella Nunez Smith is an expert in racial health disparities at Yale and a co-chair of President-elect Biden's COVID Advisory Board. She says the U.S. has made big strides in expanding testing availability, but the board is also considering what more needs to be done.

MARCELLA NUNEZ SMITH: What we don't talk about perhaps as often is what needs to follow testing.

GODOY: She says that's particularly important when it comes to stopping transmission of the virus in Black and brown communities. People of color are overrepresented in frontline jobs, often lower-wage, that can't be done from home, leaving them more exposed to infection. And they're more likely to live in dense housing conditions that make it harder to isolate themselves.

NUNEZ SMITH: How do we make sure, on the other end of the test, that we're also there, whether people need help with housing, with food, with other basic needs - that that doesn't stand in the way, that there isn't a counter-incentive for people to still go to work when told to stay home?

GODOY: Nunez Smith says another top concern for the Biden advisory board is what happens once a COVID vaccine becomes available. She says the board wants to make sure a vaccine is equitably distributed among communities of color, but convincing people to get vaccinated will be a challenge. Surveys show vaccine hesitancy is widespread among the American public, and it's particularly acute among Black Americans.

NUNEZ SMITH: It's very understandable. We are in unprecedented times. We see vaccine development at an unprecedented rate. Everyone needs and deserves reassurance around the safety process.

GODOY: In a recent focus group run by a foundation that supports the Food and Drug Administration, Black participants cited systemic racism for their vaccine hesitancy, noting a history of medical and government experimentation on African Americans.

NUNEZ SMITH: And I understand when people have concerns about experimentation, and that is an unfortunate part of our history and legacy, particularly when it comes to Black and brown bodies.

GODOY: Nunez Smith says overcoming that hesitancy will require partnering with local leaders across the U.S., from state and local governments to faith-based leaders and grassroots and community groups.

NUNEZ SMITH: This is what happens neighbor to neighbor, you know, friend to friend to be able to have a single message around what we need to do.

GODOY: Those kinds of conversations need to be happening right now, says Dr. Utibe Essien with the University of Pittsburgh. He's part of a local committee working with community leaders, church ministers and federally qualified health centers to craft messaging to counter vaccine hesitancy among communities of color.

UTIBE ESSIEN: Perhaps it is the barber that we want at the table and not just the Black physician because, you know, the community members may not listen to me despite being a Black male, but they might listen to the person that they've known and trusted for the last 20 years who perhaps has been vaccinated.

GODOY: Nunez Smith says the Biden advisory board will be leaning on lessons learned from local leaders who've been spearheading public health messaging efforts so far in this pandemic in the absence of a coordinated federal response. She says one thing that's already clear - a one-size message does not fit all.

NUNEZ SMITH: We have to be sure that we're tailoring messages for specific communities and specific realities - people who need to take public transportation, people who live in multigenerational homes. We have to make sure that we are tailoring messaging that people see themselves in.

GODOY: Maria Godoy, NPR News.


Maria Godoy is a senior science and health editor and correspondent with NPR News. Her reporting can be heard across NPR's news shows and podcasts. She is also one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.