Wolf's task force aims to boost communication with minorities amid outbreak

Tina Locurto
York Dispatch

A new task force jointly created by Gov. Tom Wolf and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman aims to help better communicate about health disparities and address the short and long-term effects of COVID-19 on minority groups.

The announcement, made Monday by Gov. Wolf and Lt. Gov. Fetterman, followed reports that the coronavirus was disproportionately affecting minority populations throughout the country. It also comes after the Wolf administration took criticism from Latino groups in particular about its handling of the outbreak. 

“We know of instances in Pennsylvania where major COVID-19 outbreaks have occurred in vulnerable communities, including ones where people do not speak English," Wolf said. “We’re working to improve our data collection so we can get a better statistical understanding of how the virus has affected different groups of people."

According to data compiled earlier this month by York City's Health Bureau,  Latinos account for 72% of the city's 109 confirmed coronavirus cases but make up just 33% of the city's total population.

Gov. Tom Wolf has let Pennsylvania’s health secretary, Rachel Levine, take the public lead.

The task force, composed of administration officials, executive directors of Wolf's five commissions and members of the Department of Health’s Equity Response team, will meet with minority community leaders to collect feedback and ideas.

Latino groups have criticized the Wolf administration for not speaking directly to that community. They specifically mentioned the lack of a Spanish version of the state's daily coronavirus briefings, which have been a key component of the administration's effort to stem the spread of the infection. Those briefings now include Spanish captions. 

The state didn't begin disseminating infection rates by race until April 16, although other states had been releasing similar information for weeks, Spotlight PA has reported.

State officials  admit collecting that data now has proven difficult. 

"We lack the statistics needed to determine the severity of the issue," Wolf said in a news conference Monday. "We need to get more medical professionals electing and reporting race data."

 Wolf added that it's essential to make testing available to everyone by relaying information on testing locations and hours of operation to minority communities. 

"This is going to help us identify difficult-to-detect cases," he said. "With the Health Disparity Task Force working with the Department of Health, we're hopeful to have more specific information."

While statistics illustrate the disproportions of ethnic groups, health professionals are chiming in to explain certain factors that also might be contributing to increased cases. 

Dr. Timothy Craig, an allergist-immunologist at Penn State Hershey Medical Center, said recently that the area in which somebody lives could affect someone's ability to contract COVID-19. 

"Those areas that are more industrial, there seems to be a predisposition for the disease," Craig said.

And, Dr. Matthew Howie, the medical director of the city's health bureau, said in early April that factors — including minorities being more prone to chronic conditions such as obesity and hypertension  — also play a role in the risk of contracting the virus.

He added that socioeconomic factors can also increase one's likeliness for contracting coronavirus.

 "COVID-19 is not different," Howie said. "Depending on the number of individuals living in a house, you can have increased exposure because of the difficulty of self-isolating and self-quarantine."

— Reach Tina Locurto at tlocurto@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @tina_locurto.