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Walsh: Race equity key to city’s COVID response

Kenneal Patterson
Walsh: Race equity key to city’s COVID response
A queue forms at an outdoor testing facility at Whittier Street Health Center. Banner photo

City officials are responding to racial disparities in Boston’s COVID-19 cases, Mayor Martin Walsh and other city officials said during a Thursday press briefing.

“Racial and ethnic equity is at the core of the COVID-19 response,” Walsh told reporters.

The Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC) is collecting the race and ethnicity data of residents testing positive for COVID-19. The virus affects black residents at a disproportionate rate: As of Thursday, black individuals made up 42% of the positive cases.

The death toll for the black community is also disproportionately high. Boston’s population is about 25% black, but black individuals make up 31% of the city’s recorded COVID-19 deaths.

These numbers may even be higher. The Boston Public Health Commission has race and ethnicity data for less than 69% of Boston’s 6,958 confirmed cases. Hundreds of other cases may go unreported, and hundreds more may go undiagnosed.

Although Asians represent 10 percent of COVID-19-related deaths, they only account for 3% of positive recorded cases. This may indicate a gap in testing access. The Boston Globe recently reported that Paul Watanabe, director of the Institute for Asian American Studies at UMass Boston, noted “serious problems in terms of access to COVID-19 testing locally.”

On the other hand, case levels are relatively low for white individuals. Census estimates from 2019 found that 52% of the city was white (Hispanic and non-Hispanic white). Nevertheless, white individuals only make up 28% of the recorded cases.

BPHC also records case data by neighborhood. The highest number of cases are found in primarily black and Latino neighborhoods. Of each neighborhood’s tested individuals, 48.2% tested positive in Mattapan and 47.2% in East Boston. Dorchester and Hyde Park closely followed, with 42% positive; Roslindale and Roxbury came in next, with 36% and 35.7%, respectively. In whiter neighborhoods, the positive case levels were much lower.  Of those tested in Back Bay, Beacon Hill, West End, Downtown and North End combined, only 17.7% of the tests came back positive.

Massachusetts is also working to collect statewide race and ethnicity data. On Thursday, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health recorded 46,023 cases. The MDPH has race and ethnicity data for less than 44% of these cases. Currently, black individuals make up 7% of the reported cases statewide, and 3.4% of the infected individuals identified as “Non-Hispanic other.”

Certain community leaders have expressed frustration with language barriers, saying that a lot of information surrounding COVID-19 is first printed in English. Mayor Walsh said that language access was a focal point.

He said that the administration translated all important city resources into the top 10 languages spoken in Boston. He also noted that the COVID-19 text alert system is in 11 different languages. Seniors around the city are getting robocalls in multiple different languages as well, he said.

“I’m very proud of the fact that 28% of the people in Boston are foreign born,” he said. “We have to make sure we get the message out to all of them in their languages.”

On Wednesday, President Trump announced a 60-day pause on issuing certain immigration green cards. The restrictions apply to employment-based immigration visas, as well as the spouses and children of legal permanent residents. Walsh called Trump’s policy “foolish” following the announcement.

Walsh later expressed his gratitude for Boston’s immigrant community.

“We’re continuing to stand up for immigrants,” he said. “Especially as the occupant of the White House continues to scapegoat immigrants.”

Despite being nearly 26% of the city’s workforce, he said, immigrants make up 35% of Boston’s healthcare workers, 40% of construction workers and 41% of hospitality workers.

“Immigrants are at the forefront of fighting the coronavirus,” Walsh said. “They are health aides and nurses and physicians and surgeons. They’re essential to our food industry.”

In Boston, 46% of food workers are estimated to be foreign-born. Almost 25% of the undocumented population also work in the food industry, he added.

“Boston’s economy certainly depends on immigrants, and immigration, quite honestly,” he said.

Walsh promised to stand with immigrants no matter what. He noted the creation of the Health Inequity Task Force, which has met three times since its creation. The Task Force reviews racial and ethnic data and assesses the pandemic’s impact on minority communities. Walsh said that the administration is working with hospitals on interventions to reduce inequities and anticipate future hotspots.

“Making sure our immigration workforce is healthy and financially stable during this pandemic will also help us when our economic recovery starts to happen,” he added.

The city may not be in complete lockdown for the next six months, said Walsh, but COVID-19’s effects will linger. Research suggests that black communities will continue being affected at higher rates.

“We faced challenges prior to the coronavirus,” said Walsh. “Certainly with the coronavirus, the challenge is even greater.”

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