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To Tackle Racial Disparities In COVID-19, California Enacts New Metric For Reopening


Elsewhere in the program, we heard one family's reflection on the president's comment yesterday that people shouldn't be afraid of COVID. Now here's how a top public health official reacted.

MARK GHALY: I think everybody needs to have a healthy respect for COVID. And hopefully, all of our leaders across the nation and locally can deliver that message in the strongest, most clear way.

CORNISH: Dr. Mark Ghaly is California's health secretary. We spoke with him because today, the state enacted a new rule to address the disproportionate harm COVID-19 has caused among communities of color. For instance, consider this statistical snapshot of COVID-19 among the state's Latinos.

GHALY: Forty percent of the state is Latino - 60% of the cases and 50% of the deaths. That's a clear disproportionality, an inequity.

CORNISH: The rule will require California's 35 largest counties to bring down levels of the virus in their most vulnerable communities before moving into the next phase of reopening.

Is this a kind of carrot and stick? I mean, basically, you are saying to these counties, look; you're not going to open - not fully - unless you tackle the problem in these communities. You're essentially forcing their hand, no?

GHALY: Well, I like not to think of it as a forcing of the hand but really reinforcing and amplifying some of the work so many counties are already doing. So...

CORNISH: But some business owners in those counties might feel that way, right?

GHALY: I think that, certainly, some can. But I think for a county to be able to move forward with confidence and success, bringing all of their communities along with reduced transmission, flooding the communities that need testing with that, making sure that we have enough disease investigators and supporting isolation really allow the county as a whole to move forward even sooner and with greater confidence because the disparate levels of transmission within a single county can really lead to problems for the entire county as the level of mixing while we reopen more of our business sectors occurs.

CORNISH: So it's not a lift-all-boats situation. You're saying that it doesn't make sense to reopen further if you don't get the infection rates under control in certain areas.

GHALY: Absolutely. I mean, we know that so many of the communities that have the disproportionate impact are, in fact, the essential workers and the people who travel on public transportation and move into all parts of the community. So really, this is not just a focus on the race and ethnic impacts of COVID but, really, a strategy to make sure we address transmission in a wise and thoughtful way across our state.

CORNISH: You know, fundamentally, the disparities that made this so hard on Latino communities, Black communities, Native communities have to do with lack of access to health care, distrust of government authorities - right? - and just the need to make a living, people having to work even under the threat of illness. Does this address any of that?

GHALY: Well, we believe that it certainly gives us a greater path to addressing some of it. In the short run, we focus on creating access to testing. We create better, stronger lines of communication between public health officials and those communities, causing us to hire and bring on more bilingual staff that can relate and connect with the target population. So we believe it both focuses on COVID but also gives us a pathway to continue to increase our connection and deepen impact with communities that, on so many health measures, have faced a disproportionate impact of disease and other bad outcomes.

CORNISH: California's health secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly, thank you for coming to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

GHALY: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF OSKAR SCHUSTER'S "FJARLAEGUR" Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Maureen Pao is an editor, producer and reporter on NPR's Digital News team. In her current role, she is lead digital editor and producer for All Things Considered. Her primary responsibility is coordinating, producing and editing high-impact online components for complex, multipart show projects and host field reporting.
Audie Cornish is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.