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How the COVID-19 Pandemic Highlights Existing Health inequities in Prince George’s County

By Ifeoma Okeke, Food Equity Council Intern 

A few weeks ago, news reports highlighted the most recent tragic milestone of the pandemic: COVID-19 has killed over 1 million people worldwide. While the virus has infected individuals and communities across the world and across the country, we’ve seen stark differences in rates of infection among communities experiencing challenging health, economic, and environmental determinants. 

In Prince George’s County and across the nation, we’ve seen that people of color and those of low socioeconomic status are at a much greater risk of experiencing serious health complications from COVID-19 due to factors like diet-related chronic disease, food insecurity, lack of access to healthcare, and occupation.

Food Insecure Residents Are More Vulnerable to Complications From COVID-19

Prior to the pandemic, food insecurity impacted 104,760 residents due to underlying causes, including poverty and income instability, which can make it difficult for residents to access healthy food options. The pandemic has only increased these numbers as high unemployment rates have caused many low-income residents who were once at risk of becoming food insecure to now fully experience food insecurity. Food insecure residents struggle to access healthy or nutritious food which can put them at greater risk of developing diet-related chronic diseases that can increase risk and complications from COVID-19. In Prince George’s County, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and diabetes are the leading physical health concerns with disproportionately high rates impacting people of color. For example, Black residents in Prince George's County face obesity and diabetes rates of 38.9% and 14.8%, respectively — both higher than the average rates in Maryland. 

The Current Effects of Pre-pandemic Disparities in Health Care Access

Access to health care is crucial to staying healthy year-round. In Prince George’s County, many people of color did not have health insurance. For example, in 2014 only 47.1% of Hispanic residents had access to health insurance. During the pandemic, Hispanic residents have become hospitalized at a rate 3.5 times greater than for white residents. While this is due to multiple factors, it is worth considering whether increased access to health care could have decreased infection and hospitalization rates among Hispanic communities. With the loss of jobs during the pandemic, many residents who used to rely on employer-based health insurance are now less likely to seek the necessary care for COVID-19 symptoms. 

People in Certain Occupations Are More Likely to Get Sick

When the U.S. began statewide lockdowns, many Americans began to avoid large gatherings, stay home more frequently, and do their jobs remotely. However, not everyone has the privilege to work from home. Healthcare professionals, cashiers, cleaning staff, and other frontline workers have jobs that require them to interact with other people who could potentially have COVID-19. In addition, frontline workers don’t always get the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) for their work environment. For example, hospital cleaning staff have reported that they are undervalued, underpaid, and not given the PPE necessary for cleaning after patients with COVID-19. 

Grocery store workers across the country have faced opposition from shoppers who refuse to wear masks to protect those around them. Foodservice workers also face similar challenges as grocery store workers. As states eased restrictions on restaurant openings, more food service workers had to interact with customers for in-person dining, which increases the likelihood of COVID-19 spread. It is also important to note that Black and Hispanic Americans are more likely to do these essential in-person jobs which may contribute to the greater spread of COVID-19 among people of color. 

Building a Healthier and More Resilient County: 

Before the COVID-19 pandemic reached Prince George’s County, there were several interventions put in place to help address existing health disparities. For example, Maryland became a Medicaid expansion state in 2018, which helped low-income adults with dependents access healthcare. In addition, the University of Maryland Horowitz Center for Health Literacy has been helping residents to develop strong health literacy skills needed to navigate medical terminology during doctor’s visits. Lastly, our partners at The Prince George’s County Soil Conservation District are working to connect farmers with residents, particularly residents of color, who may have inadequate access to fresh produce.

The gravity of the COVID-19 pandemic, brought further interventions to protect residents and frontline workers. The CARES Act provided funding for county governments across the US to provide money for residents who lost their jobs due to the pandemic. In addition, food distribution sites at churches, community centers, and schools continue to provide meals for food-insecure children and families. School meal sites have been particularly important for families who previously relied on school lunches to keep children fed. Recently, the USDA announced that free school meals will be available to all children through June 2021. 

In addition to the current interventions, the FEC encourages the County to explore policies to support residents in need. Unemployment and economic stress have been challenges for many residents, particularly immigrants; it is imperative that the County supplement federal rental assistance funds in order to help immigrant families who would otherwise live in overcrowded households that could increase COVID-19 spread. Second, the County can support healthy food access by creating incentives to increase grocery stores in areas with limited healthy food options in order to prevent diet-related chronic diseases. Lastly, the County should support residents' access to health care services by providing language and cultural translation services at health clinics. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted Prince George’s County residents, particularly low-income Black and brown residents. Determinants like food insecurity, healthcare access, and occupation have impacted these outcomes. While Prince George’s County has both pre and post-pandemic interventions for pandemic relief, there is still more that can be done to ensure the health and safety of all residents. It’s important that Prince George’s County leaders work to increase access to healthcare services, affordable healthy food, high-quality housing, and additional resources to help maintain good public health in the face of the current pandemic and future public health or environmental crises.

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