To more clearly understand how the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted communities of color, legislation to establish a task force to examine racial and health disparities related to the coronavirus received final legislative approval on Monday, passing the full Assembly, 69-0-1. The measure passed the Senate in February 34-0 and now goes to the Governor’s desk.

The bill, sponsored by Assembly Democrats Shavonda Sumter, Angelica Jimenez and Linda Carter, would create a 21-member Coronavirus Disease Pandemic Task Force on Racial and Health Disparities in the New Jersey Department of Health. The group would conduct a thorough and comprehensive study of how the pandemic has affected minority and vulnerable communities in New Jersey, as well as the short and long term consequences for these communities.

“Long before the COVID-19 pandemic began, people of color faced enormous disparities in our healthcare system,” said Sumter (D-Bergen, Passaic). “African-American and Latino mothers saw higher mortality rates. A disproportionate number of minority families lacked access to health insurance and care. And now communities of color are being impacted by COVID-19 at an alarming rate. We need to understand how and why these disparities are happening, and what we can do to mitigate the harm this pandemic has caused.”

The task force will be charged with improving existing data systems to ensure race, ethnicity and demographic information is included in data on COVID-19 infections and deaths. It will evaluate access to and quality of treatment delivered to various racial and ethnic populations, and develop strategies to address and reduce racial, ethnic and health disparities and systemic inequalities that have amplified the COVID-19 death rate among minority and vulnerable communities.

“This public health crisis has exacerbated deep inequities across New Jersey, particularly racial health disparities,” said Jimenez (D-Bergen, Hudson). “Communities of color have shouldered a large burden in this pandemic and will undoubtedly need unique assistance to recover. The work of this task force will help us get a clearer picture of the extent of the pandemic’s toll on these communities and continue our efforts to promote health equity for all.”

“As our state works toward recovery from this public health and economic crisis, we must begin asking ourselves some tough questions, including why this pandemic is disproportionately affecting people of color,” said Carter (D-Middlesex, Somerset, Union). “The numbers are staggering and unnerving. We must take action to end inequalities that impact social determinants of health like access to healthcare, work opportunities and transportation.”

Additionally, the task force would hold three public hearings, either in-person or remotely, as appropriate, in the northern, central and southern regions of the State to hear testimony from community members on their experiences during the pandemic. It will evaluate communications, messages and modes of dissemination regarding testing, contact tracing, and other related public health matters to achieve health care equity and cultural competence. It will also assess other issues such as impact of COVID-19 on mental and physical health of essential workers; access to childcare services; and the prevalence of intimate partner violence, among others.

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