A Houston state representative is asking Gov. Greg Abbott to establish an emergency task force to focus on how COVID-19 is affecting Texas’ black community.
Rep. Shawn Thierry wrote Abbott last month, and since then has had conversations with the governor’s office about the idea. However, no specific timeline has been given for when it would start.
“I’m praying and hoping that we don’t have an advance second wave of this after the summer, but many experts around the country, including Dr. (Anthony) Fauci, have said that it’s reasonable to expect that during flu season,” said Thierry, a Democrat who represents parts of southwest and southeast communities in Houston. “Where does that leave African-Americans? Where does that leave Latino Americans or just communities of color for this second time? Will it be worse and will it be too late at that point?”
Abbott has indicated publicly that he would be discussing the task force with state leaders, according to Thierry. The governor’s office did not respond directly to inquiries about the matter, instead referring a Chronicle reporter to the Texas Health & Human Services Commission, which said Friday it planned to study COVID-19’s impact on the state’s vulnerable populations.
The commission’s “top priority is protecting the health and safety of all Texans, so our agency is launching a study to understand how and why COVID-19 could have a greater impact on vulnerable populations in Texas as defined by race, ethnicity, age, socioeconomic status, geographic location, chronic illness, presence of a disability, and employment status,” wrote Christine Mann, the commission’s chief press officer. “Texas needs to understand the health impact of COVID-19 on these vulnerable populations to determine which of these factors may be putting some Texans at greater risk.”
The commission said it expects to prepare a preliminary analysis in the fall “with additional monitoring and data collection moving forward.”
In the city of Houston and Fort Bend County, African-Americans represent the highest number of deaths from the new coronavirus compared to other races, according to a Chronicle analysis of government figures.
African-Americans have also died at disproportionate rates from COVID-19 in other U.S. cities. Some Texas counties initially didn’t break down COVID-19 cases and deaths by race, but more began to do so amid reports about the disease’s devastating impact on the black community.
In her letter, Thierry notes that Fauci, a leader in the federal response to the new coronavirus, said African-American patients are more likely than patients of other races to end up on a ventilator because of COVID-19. Nationwide, the morbidity and mortality rate for African-Americans is as high as five times that of other racial groups.
Thierry said communities such as South Park, Sunnyside and Almeda Plaza, all of which she represents, are among those getting hit hard by COVID-19.
Among the lawmakers to sign Thierry’s letter is state Rep. Ron Reynolds, a Missouri City Democrat. Reynolds has been handing out face protective masks and holding weekly Facebook Live events reminding people to wear masks and practice social distancing.
“We know for a fact that this disease has disproportionately impacted the African-American community more than any other particular race,” Reynolds said. “We have to be more diligent, more careful, more guarded, more aware of our surroundings and how we operate. That’s the only way we can protect ourselves and our families.”
According to data from local officials, as of Friday evening:
In the city of Houston, 44 African-Americans had died of the illness compared to 40 Latinos, 31 whites and seven people of Asian descent. Two deaths are unknown. In total, 124 people had died.
In Fort Bend County, 15 African-Americans had died of COVID-19 compared to 12 whites, eight Latinos and six people of Asian descent. African-Americans comprise about 21 percent and 22.5 percent of the populations of Fort Bend and the city of Houston, respectively.
African-Americans do not represent the majority of deaths in parts of Harris County outside of the city of Houston. The death toll there includes 32 whites and 24 blacks, according to data from that county’s health department.
And in Galveston County, blacks accounted for only two deaths compared to 24 whites. African-Americans represent 19 percent of the population in Harris County and only roughly 13 percent in Galveston County.
Statewide, African-Americans account for 13.7 percent of deaths compared to 36.7 percent of whites. The state only has information available so far for 490 deaths, though it is estimated that more than 1,400 have died.
According to Thierry’s letter, a task force should look at reducing the COVID-19 contagion rate while also trying to determine how to increase the survival rates for African-Americans.
The letter proposes that a panel collect information and data to help lower the coronavirus morbidity and mortality rate for African-Americans. Thierry hopes the task force can be made up of medical experts, elected leaders, epidemiologists, public health officials, faith leaders and other community influencers.
A future task force should also address the possibility of implicit bias on COVID-19 testing, emergency-room protocols and medical treatment plans for the most at-risk patient population, according to the letter. It should start a public awareness and education campaign that targets underserved communities, with an emphasis on decreasing community spread of the new coronavirus.
“This is the time now for us to huddle up and put the infrastructure in place, so that we will not then be in this reactive mode if it is to happen again in the winter,” said Thierry.