Senators, public health officials discuss disparities, inequities

  • State Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 7/1/2020 11:34:32 AM

Public health officials talked and state senators listened as issues of disparity, racism and inequity were discussed during a live online broadcast on Monday.

Sens. Jo Comerford and Adam Hinds joined colleagues as they heard from Frank Robinson at Baystate Health, Phoebe Walker at the Franklin Regional Council of Governments (FRCOG) and other public health officials from across the state.

Hinds, D-Pittsfield, said the senators gathered to hear comments so they can identify gaps, understand how executive orders concerning the pandemic might be extended with some becoming permanent, and to figure out how to help in the final phase of reopening as it approaches.

“As we enter our ‘new normal,’ we need to see how things will impact our daily lives,” he said. “We understand people need leadership and governing that can navigate through uncertain times.”

Comerford, D-Northampton, said it is shocking to her that it has been more than 111 days since the governor declared a state of emergency.

“We have more than 8,000 people dead from COVID-19,” said the chair of the Joint Committee on Public Health and the Senate working group on COVID-19.

Comerford acknowledged that the hardest hit have been people of color and those struggling with environmental racism and poverty.

“COVID laid bare for everyone to see the disparity, inequity,” she said. “We have to figure out what to do different as the state emerges from this crisis. Equity is at the core. We’ve got a lot of challenges, but also opportunities.”

‘All about the data’

Robinson, vice-president of public health at Baystate, said data is going to be really important as the state government and others tackle the issues that were known but have been even more highlighted during the pandemic.

“We have to do specific analyses on how COVID has impacted low-come populations,” he said.

Those living in poverty not only have to worry about health, but education, housing and less opportunity, because they lack what other communities have to thrive.

Robinson said there are higher rates of heart disease, infant mortality, diabetes, and obesity among low-income populations, many of whom are Black or Latino, and those are the people who have been most affected by COVID-19.

“Oppression goes on and on,” he said. “But we’re hamstrung, because it’s really all about the data and we don’t have it. If we had the data, we could follow the patterns of this infection.”

He said racism also needs to be declared a public health issue and then the work needs to be done to end it.

Robinson and other public health officials said the government in Boston needs to recognize that there aren’t enough local and regional health resources in western Massachusetts. For instance, testing and contact tracing has not been as good as it should be.

There was also consensus that everyone at high risk should easily be able to get tested, including essential workers, people living in shelters, jails and long-term facilities and immigrants – the populations that have been hardest hit across the state.

Robinson also warned that it is not time for an austerity budget, because that will only exacerbate disparity and inequity. Instead, the state government needs to invest even more in its communities, especially the poorest.

“There are terrible inequities in working and living conditions and in health care,” he said.

Hinds responded by saying senators will look at how to do better with data collecting and how it can effectively bring socio-economic data into health.

“We have to figure out what pieces we’re missing,” he said.

Comerford followed by recognizing the issues Robinson raised are preventable and could be eliminated with good policy and she’s committed to working on the issues.

“I appreciate your call to action,” she told Robinson.

’Big disconnect’

The senators agreed that there tends to be a “big disconnect” with the western and eastern parts of the state.

As FRCOG Director of Community Services, Walker said the local health district, which consists of 15 of the 26 towns in Franklin County, needs to do better when it comes to disease management and contact tracing and that has been clear through the pandemic.

She agreed with Robinson, “We have no data concerning how we are doing, and there are no teeth in reporting requirements.”

What the local health district has learned from COVID-19, she said, is that many local health departments are unsupported and uncertified. It is also clear that they are underfunded and there’s no state requirement for public health nurses in towns, so many don’t have one.

“The state and town aren’t working together,” Comerford said. “That leaves health departments to compete with each other for scarce funds, and many have to rely on grants.”

Walker also believes that the reopening could be going better. Health departments are understaffed, so many places aren’t being inspected before they reopen. Instead, health inspectors are responding to complaints from customers and staff of places that aren’t reopening as safely as they should.

“Businesses are left to open on their own,” she said. “There should be local health regulating and that’s not happening.”

Walker told senators that there needs to be a “serious investment” in local public health for funding and staffing, especially in poorer communities.

“Everyone deserves to be safe,” she said. “This isn’t going to be the last pandemic. Climate change is going to bring many other illnesses and we have to work on health inequities before that happens. Now, 2020, is the time to bring us into the 21st century when it comes to public health.”

Comerford and Hinds thanked everyone for their comments and suggestions and said it is going to take political will and money to change public health standards across the state.

“We need public health,” Comerford said. “The state needs to help.”

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