February 25, 2021

Rep Cárdenas, Rep Watson Coleman, Sen Menendez Reintroduce Legislation to Address COVID-19 Racial Disparities

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, Representatives Tony Cárdenas (CA-29) and Bonnie Watson Coleman (NJ-12) introduced the COVID-19 Health Disparities Action Act of 2021 to address the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on communities of color. This legislation would require targeted testing, contract tracing, public awareness campaigns, and outreach efforts specifically directed at racial and ethnic minority communities and other populations that have been made vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic. Senators Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Ben Cardin (D-MD) introduced a companion bill in the Senate.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately hurt Brown, Black, Indigenous, and Asian and Pacific Islander communities,” said Congressman Cárdenas. “People of color are dying from the coronavirus at higher rates because often these communities of color, due to employment and other factors, are often the most likely to be exposed to the virus. Whether working outdoors in agriculture, indoors in meatpacking plants, or in a range of in-person service-focused industries. In addition, lack of access to health care and other necessary services in these communities coupled with a lack of action by this administration has compounded the pandemic’s devastating impact.”

“As we’ve seen through the first year of the coronavirus pandemic, poor and minority neighborhoods as well as underserved rural communities have been especially hard hit,” said Congresswoman Watson Coleman. “Sadly, vast disparities exist in our health infrastructure and they must be addressed. If we are to be successful in defeating the virus our response must include extra resources to attack the pandemic where it’s hurt the most. This bill recognizes this reality; I strongly support it and am grateful to my colleagues Congressman Cárdenas and Senator Menendez for helping to push this issue.”

“The pandemic has only magnified the racial and ethnic health disparities that have existed in this country for far too long,” said Sen. Menendez. “The fact remains that fewer people in underserved and minority communities are getting vaccinated, compared to other communities, even though they are more likely to be infected or die from COVID-19. We can and must do better. That is why I have consistently advocated for an equitable, nationwide COVID-19 response and vaccine distribution plan that leaves no one behind, and I won’t stop fighting to ensure that those most affected by this crisis have access to the resources they need to safeguard their and their family’s well-being.”

“Communities of color have disproportionately borne the impact of the coronavirus pandemic in Maryland and nationwide,” said Sen Cardin. “Given that these at-risk communities faced barriers in accessing care before the pandemic and such problems have been greatly exacerbated, our communications must be culturally tailored and from trusted messengers. I am proud to reintroduce this legislation to promote equitable vaccine administration that will be essential for protecting our communities of color, while also calling on the White House to collect critical demographic data to ensure the success of the vaccination effort nationwide.” 

The COVID-19 Health Disparities Action Act would require:

  • Health Disparity-Informed Contract Tracing Grants - Contact tracers are more likely to be effective if they “live in and share culture, language, and life experiences with the members of the communities they serve.”3 To build trust and achieve the goal of reducing community transmission of COVID-19, contact tracers must be culturally competent and in some cases multilingual. This legislation would ensure that contact-tracing efforts are tailored to the racial and ethnic diversity of local communities. 
  • Create and Implement a Federal Health Disparities Action Plan - The legislation would require the administration to develop an action plan to address the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 among racial and ethnic minority, rural, and other vulnerable populations. HHS would develop the plan in coordination with other Offices of Minority Health, the National Institute of Minority Health and Health Disparities, and community-based organizations. States would also be required to revise testing and contact tracing plans to address racial and ethnic minority, rural, and other vulnerable populations experiencing health disparities related to COVID–19.
  • Develop a Public Awareness Campaigns to Address Health Disparities - This legislation would authorize the development of targeted public awareness campaigns directed at racial and ethnic minority, rural, and other socially vulnerable populations disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. 

According to a UC Berkeley study, nearly 7 in 10 Latino and Black voters in Los Angeles County, for example, said that the virus posed a “major threat” to their personal or family health, according to the poll from UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies. About 6 in 10 Asian American voters said the virus was a major threat. By comparison, fewer than half of white voters reported the same level of concern. Health officials are recording disproportionate hospitalizations and deaths and observing lower than average vaccination rates in communities of color. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 18% of Californians who have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose are Hispanic, despite the fact that Latinos comprise 40% of the state’s total population.

The bill is supported by the National Alliance against Disparities in Patient Health (NADPH), the Friends of the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD), the National Council of Urban Indian Health, and the National Hispanic Medical Association (NHMA). The bill is cosponsored by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Gary Peters (D-Mich.), Mark Warner (D-Va.), Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.), Ben Ray Lujan (D-N.M.), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), and Tina Smith (D-Minn.).

Congressman Cárdenas sits on the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Health Subcommittee.