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Officials say racial inequities exist among COVID-19 deaths, hospitalizations in Alaska

(Courtesy: Dr. Jayme Parker)
Published: Nov. 23, 2020 at 6:06 AM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Communities of color in Alaska are being disproportionately affected by the pandemic according to Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer Anne Zink.

Zink shared Department of Health and Social Services data at a community conversation on the pandemic’s effects on Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color hosted by the Alaska Black Caucus Sunday. A major disparity she pointed to was among Alaska Natives, who represent a much larger share of the state’s death compared to the roughly 15% of the population they represent, according to 2019 US Census Bureau estimates.

“32% of all of our people who have deceased from COVID-19 are Alaska Native Peoples,” she said. “You can see some very large discrepancies here.”

Similarly, she said Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders represent 9% of the deaths, but less than 4% of the population. She added that while there’s less discrepancy in the Black and African American population compared to the rest of the U.S., there are concerns that could change.

“We really want to emphasize that this is preliminary data, and as we start to see more cases in the state of Alaska, we are always concerned that we’ll start to see more racial inequities,” she said.

Zink was one of many health experts and community members who participated in Sunday’s conversation, which attempted to identify the causes of and solutions to these disparities.

As for causes, Dr. Christopher Gay, co-chair of the ABC’s Health Committee pointed to higher rates of diabetes, heart disease, and other conditions that can increase the risk of more severe symptoms from the virus.

“A lot of these things go hand in hand with the impact that COVID has had on these communities with some of the death rates that you’ll see,” he said.

But Gay and the other co-chair, Allison Hourigan, pointed to systemic issues that lead to those conditions as well as a lack of resources for communities of color during the pandemic.

“These can include things like access to health care, income, the type of job that you have, that might increase your susceptibility to exposure, your ability to stay home when you’re sick,” Hourigan said.

Looking at solutions, participants talked about a need for additional resources to support these communities.

“What we would like to do is ensure that appropriate efforts are being made to provide convenient, equitable access to covid testing, along with culturally appropriate prevention education,” Gay said.

Access to testing, education, and resources for communities of color were common themes, but the discussion then moved to how to provide these resources. Zink discussed the concept of equity versus equality.

“I think that we also need to think about our communities of color and some of our rural communities in a very similar way, that sometimes we have to spend unequal amounts of resources to get equal results,” she said.

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