Coronavirus: DeWine to focus on ‘troubling issues’ of racial disparities

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine played a University of Dayton choral version of the national anthem before the coronavirus news conference at the Statehouse Thursday, May 21, 2020, because of the upcoming Memorial Day holiday. (Doral Chenoweth/The Columbus Dispatch via AP)
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine played a University of Dayton choral version of the national anthem before the coronavirus news conference at the Statehouse Thursday, May 21, 2020, because of the upcoming Memorial Day holiday. (Doral Chenoweth/The Columbus Dispatch via AP)

With black Ohioans overrepresented in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths, Gov. Mike DeWine rolled out plans for a targeted public awareness campaign, increasing access to coronavirus testing in key communities and working more closely with local groups.

DeWine said racial disparities in coronavirus cases and other health problems are deeply concerning, and Ohio has an obligation to address root causes such as improving access to housing, nutritious food, education, health care and transportation.

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“The health disparities didn’t occur overnight. They are complex and present complex challenges. The current coronavirus pandemic has brought into high contrast these troubling issues,” he said.

The new plans will augment programs already underway to address health issues, he said.

House Minority Leader Emilia Sykes, D-Akron, blasted the plans as too little, too late and criticized him for failing to name structural racism as a root cause of disparities in minority health.

“The recommendations he mentioned represent the easiest path forward, the lowest possible hanging fruit, and such simple steps should have been implemented six weeks ago to have any significant impact. Black Ohioans will continue to suffer the consequences of being left behind,” she said in a written statement.

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In April, DeWine established a 41-member Minority Health Strike Force that is led by Ohio Department of Aging Director Ursel McElroy and Alisha Nelson, director of DeWine’s Recovery Ohio Initiative, and includes Sykes. The team is expected to deliver final recommendations to DeWine next month.

African Americans make up 14% of Ohio’s population, yet account for at least 25% of the COVID-19 cases, 30% of hospitalizations and 17% of the deaths.

More black Ohioans have died this year of COVID-19 than other leading causes, surpassing hypertension and car crashes in all of 2018, according to a report from Health Policy Institute of Ohio.

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Sykes and the policy institute say , the coronavirus’ disproportionate affect on black Ohioans is attributed to several factors: they are more likely to work in public-facing, low-income jobs where exposure to the virus is more likely; they have higher rates of underlying conditions that can lead to complications, such as diabetes, asthma or hypertension; and racism is seen as a chronic stressor that can affect health.

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Sykes, who holds a master’s degree in public health, said the strike force work has lacked depth, caring, communication and urgency.

“I feel like people don’t care and this is happening in real time and you have to address it in real time,” Sykes said.

The DeWine administration missed an opportunity to embed culturally competent messaging in the COVID-19 emergency response, failed to prioritize testing for black communities or to seek help by putting test sites at churches and community centers, and failed to mandate complete data collection for rapid analysis.

“We keep hearing we are all in this together, but it’s feeling like we’re not,” Sykes said.

The Ohio Department of Health reported on Thursday 28,174 coronavirus cases, plus 1,993 probable cases; 5,295 hospitalizations; 1,653 deaths, plus 183 deaths attributed to probable cases.

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Lt. Gov. Jon Husted said bowling alleys, batting cages and mini golf can reopen and training for contact high school sports such as football and lacrosse can begin May 26.

And while gatherings are still capped at 10 people, banquet halls can hold events — such as wedding receptions — with up to 300 people beginning June 1. Those events must follow the same guidance applied to restaurants: no congregation areas and people must be seated while eating and drinking.

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