Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith (bottom, left), heads the COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force, which includes Dr. Cameron Webb, the White House’s senior policy advisor for COVID-19 equity. They detailed the task force’s mission and more during a virtual conference with NNPA President/CEO Dr. Benjamin L. Chavis, NNPA Board President Nancy Carter Richards and Stacy Brown, NNPA senior correspondent. (Screen capture)

by Najee El-Amin — 

White House top health officials and representatives of the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) gathered May 5 for a virtual panel to discuss the current effects of the pandemic on the Black community.

Topics included health equity in American-American communities and how to combat COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy in some of those African-American communities. 

The panel was moderated by NNPA President and CEO Dr. Benjamin Chavis Jr. and focused on the efforts of the Health Equity Task Force. 

President Joe Biden established the COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force in January to address the disparities of the COVID-19 response. The team is comprised of a diverse group of individuals, who have been hard at work making recommendations regarding the gaps in data with neglected demographics regarding health care, especially during the pandemic.

The group is tasked with not only advising Washington on how to proceed with pandemic relief efforts, but also the allocation of resource funds and improving communications within underserved communities. 

The task force’s work is vital, given the fact that people of color have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.

In Shelby County, for example, 57 percent of the reported COVID-19 cases have been among African Americans, compared to 30 percent among whites, according to the latest county Health Department data. Fifty-eight percent of the county’s COVID-related deaths have been African Americans, according to the Health Department.

Task Force leader Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith is a nationally recognized advocate for health equity. She is an associate professor of medicine and epidemiology at the Yale School of Medicine, where she is also associate dean for Health Equity Research and founding director of the Equity Research and Innovation Center.

Her passion for improving access comes from her past experiences growing up on the U.S. Virgin Islands, where she watched the people suffer from illnesses that could have been dealt with, including her own father who was left paralyzed after having a stroke.

In the U.S., she saw people face similar hardships because of racial, social and geographical prejudice. 

Joining her on the panel was frontline worker Dr. Cameron Webb. Webb has been treating patients at the University of Virginia’s COVID unit for nearly a year and also is the director of Health Policy and Equity at the school. He also has been a member of the Obama Administration’s youth opportunity-based My Brother’s Keeper Task Force. 

After being appointed in January, Webb now acts as the White House’s senior policy advisor for COVID-19 equity.

“In my lifetime, I’ve worked for three presidents on healthcare issues and that particular opportunity started with me being a doctor, started with me having a passion for taking care of people in my community. And I think that’s a really unique role,” said Webb. 

Chavis emphasized that “vaccination hesitation” was an important focus of the task force.

Nunez-Smith said establishing trust within the community is one of the task force’s top priorities and made it clear that they weren’t going to back down from the challenge. 

“Ultimately, we’re trying to get everyone in the country vaccinated, who medically is able to,” said Nunez-Smith. This has to be a community-level goal too… How key it is for folks to see people they know getting vaccinated.”

Misguided information has been a driving factor on why many people in communities of color have yet to be vaccinated.

Webb said fewer than nine percent of those who received the vaccine (and where the ethnicity was disclosed) were Black.

He believes that spreading accurate information through platforms such as the NNPA will be a major factor to stopping the spread. 

“These vaccines are a key path to that (getting back to normal life),” said Webb. “Getting the right message out there as such a trusted voice that’s gonna be a key and that’s more important now than ever.”