Polis Is Phasing Out Colorado’s COVID-19 Health Equity Panel, Even As Gaps Persist In The Coronavirus’s Impact

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Maria Elena Enamorado and her son, Aaron, appeared for free COVID-19 testing at the Globeville Community Church provided by Clinica Tepeyac. Sept. 1, 2020.

The state is winding down a COVID-19 health equity committee formed last spring to tackle gaping disparities the virus exposed.

Black and Latino residents are getting sick and dying from COVID-19 at higher rates than white people in Colorado, and nationwide. The COVID-19 Health Equity Response Team is made up of 19 members who help lead a diverse set of grassroots nonprofits representing communities of color. It was tasked with developing recommendations to tackle the inequities.

“I was shocked (that the state decided to discontinue the group),” said Lizeth Chacon, executive director of the Denver-based Colorado People’s Alliance.

Chacon, and the other members of the panel who spoke with CPR, noted that they were speaking for themselves, not the larger Health Equity Response Team group.

Chacon described the volunteer team as an “incredible group of folks that are super engaged” in communities across the state, working with a broad array of residents struggling to deal with the harsh impacts of the virus: essential workers, people who have lost their jobs, and undocumented residents. “If there was a group to put together, this was the group to put together,” she said. “I just feel like there's still so much work to do. COVID has not gone away,” she said.

“It’s not been super clear,” why the committee is being disbanded now, she added. 

“I'm disappointed. I was a little surprised. I'm also a realist,” said Deidre Johnson, CEO of the Center for African American Health in Denver. She thought the group had provided valuable information and insights to the governor and his team about how the pandemic was hitting families from diverse backgrounds. “I think the best way to deploy resources is to hear what's happening on the ground,” she said, adding the work of the team has had “an impact on the ground to real people.”

She said she was grateful to be invited to be part of such a diverse, grassroots group.   

Colorado's COVID-19 Health Equity Team was established in April. By August, things had changed.

In late August, Gov. Jared Polis sent a letter to the group’s members saying the panel was being sunsetted and thanking them for their service.

Polis attended a meeting of the team Sept. 10. A summary posted on the group’s website states “much of the conversation focused on the possible sunsetting of the group in October.” It doesn’t contain details beyond that.

In a statement, spokeswoman Shelby Wieman said members of the group are “passionate about their work to reduce health inequities, and we are appreciative of their invaluable contributions during COVID-19.”

She said the governor’s office will continue to solicit feedback from community partners and is dedicated to responding to this pandemic “in ways that narrow the health inequity gaps.”

After the pandemic hit in March, the state and other government entities established a number of committees to help plan responses. Some members serve on multiple boards, which meet frequently.

“I continue to believe that there is value in this team, which is why it was brought together,” said Maggie Gómez, deputy director of the Center for Health Progress.

Gómez described as cordial both the September meeting with the governor and the letter his office sent to the group members in August suggesting the group would soon be dissolved.

“It was definitely a big thank you,” she said, noting she and others are on multiple COVID-19 committees being run by the governor’s office.

“I am just so proud of the work of this team,” Gómez said.

Polis established the group April 17 “to address racial inequities regarding positive cases and deaths related to COVID-19.”

A press release from the Governor’s Office spelled out the group’s mission: to “ensure equity” as a factor in logistic and resource decision-making, increase access to testing and care services, and “share time-sensitive information” about how Colorado communities are experiencing particular challenges related to the COVID-19 response.

Another stated goal was to ensure racial and ethnic COVID-19 data are “accessible, transparent and used in decision-making.”

The team advocated for worker's protections, translated COVID-19 information and more

At the time the Equity Response Team (ERT) first met, there was no set plan for how long it would meet.

“We knew it was very open-ended,” said Gómez, noting in the early months of the pandemic, a lot was going on and things were moving fast. Given that, she said it was probably the right call to have the status of the group be “a little bit more loose.”

The group met every week for about two months and then once a month over the summer. One specific push was to get more COVID-19 testing in neighborhoods and diverse communities to help limit the spread of the virus and get services to those who’d contracted it.

“We know, frankly, where testing wasn't happening, where it was accessible, where people were being dissuaded from getting tested and it ran all across the board from really great to really terrible,” Gómez said.

The equity team made recommendations about potential strategies, including making sure testing was free, equitable, and that instruction was provided in multiple languages. The group provided information about specific locations of emerging outbreaks.

Members also advocated for paid family leave, paid sick days, whistleblower protections and the value of providing neighborhoods with promotoras, community health liaisons.

In recent months, the state health department increased testing availability and access, with more than 50 free community testing sites. 

It also drafted guidelines for a public health response for people with limited English proficiency and provided translations of critical materials on the state’s COVID-19 website into several languages including Spanish, as well as Vietnamese, Simplified Chinese, Arabic, Nepali and Somali.

In the early months of the pandemic, it became clear the virus was hitting communities of color hard, both in terms of disease risk and fatality rates. Data from around the US, as well as New York, Chicago, Louisiana and Michigan, documented the disparities.

In the medical journal JAMA Network in April, Dr. Clyde W. Yancy wrote “evidence of potentially egregious health care disparities is now apparent.”

At an April 13 news conference, Gov. Polis told reporters Colorado was seeing similar trends. The COVID-19 outbreak was disproportionately prevalent among African American, Hispanic and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander people in Colorado, he said. That was according to new data from the state.

For instance, state figures at the time showed while Latino people make up about 22 percent of the state’s population, they represented about 28 percent of its COVID-19 cases. Black residents are about 4 percent of the population but represented about 7 percent of cases. Similar disparities have held true in the following months.

State officials said differences for all three groups were statistically significant. Also, the impact was the opposite for white and Asian people, who made up a disproportionately smaller portion of cases.

The state continues to provide data analysis via a recently revamped website. It updates case data by race and ethnicity and other factors.

Members of the Equity Response Team say the work they were doing is as critical as ever

Gómez said given the intense and disproportionate impact the pandemic is having on traditionally underserved communities, the work to reverse those trends is as critical as ever.

“Pandemic or not, there is a huge need to address the health disparities in the state,” she said.

Shelby Wieman, the governor’s spokesperson, said via email that based in part upon the ERT’s recommendations, “we’ve been able to make tremendous strides” in demographic data collection and accessibility of testing.

She said the state is also planning a statewide informational marketing campaign.

A spokesperson from the state health department said it has chosen a media vendor for the campaign. Its goal is to increase mask wearing and the practice of physical distancing. It aims to inform young adults, adults over the age of 65, Black Coloradans, Spanish-speaking Coloradans, and English-speaking Hispanic or Latino Coloradans. 

The ads will run in November and December. 

Johnson thinks the ads could be valuable, since many people still haven’t embraced some of the measures strongly recommended by public health leaders.

“I think it can only help,” she said.

Chacon said unlike similar groups set up in other states she’d heard about, Colorado’s equity team was made of members from grassroots groups working directly with underserved residents. She worries the team’s dissolution is a missed opportunity, one that will be felt in the communities they serve.

“I think that it is a loss for that to be gone,” she said. “And for that perspective to not be a direct line of communication to the governor or anyone else that's making decisions on the pandemic.”

Several members of the group said they hoped it could continue to meet, even informally, to collaborate as the pandemic continues.

“I would definitely be a part of that and I have to agree with the value in us coming together,” Johnson said.

Some members of the team are now part of another committee discussing how to best plan for the distribution of COVID-19 vaccine, once one is developed.

“Once they become available, I really feel like the state and Denver is really doing its best to be as thoughtful and inclusive as possible,” Johnson said.