Representatives from Maine’s immigrant and minority communities called on Gov. Janet Mills to meet with them and take bolder, more inclusive steps Thursday to address the widening racial disparity in Maine’s coronavirus cases.

They criticized what they described as a top-down approach from the Mills administration to the racial disparity problem. Instead, they called for a stronger “partnership” between the state and community-based groups to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and respond to infections.

“We came to you over and over and over, hundreds of meetings and thousands of hours of time, collectively, asking and pleading for help,” said Fatuma Hussein, executive director of the Immigrant Resource Center of Maine in Lewiston in a virtual news conference Thursday. “But our needs and voices remain unheard. … Well, it is time for state officials to walk the walk as much as they talk the talk.”

Maine has the nation’s largest racial gap among COVID-19 cases, with Black or African American residents accounting for 27 percent of the cases where the race of the individual is known, despite representing just 1.4 percent of the state’s population. That figure rises to 33 percent – or nearly 900 of Maine’s 2,710 cases – among all cases involving Black, Indigenous, Hispanic and other people of color.

In addition to a meeting with Mills, advocates urged the administration to establish a task force to address COVID-19 inequities that they say are rooted in deeper, systemic racial problems in Maine. They also called on Mills to tap federal funds – including Maine’s $1.25 billion share of congressional CARES Act funding – or state resources to provide immediate assistance to community groups working on the ground.

Just before the event, Mills announced that her office was earmarking $50,000 to the Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous and Maine Tribal Populations. While that commission will explore the racial disparities, the group’s interim chair said it is but “one tool” needed to address a much bigger issue.

“Governor Mills: these contracts and whatever the funding you are providing today is late, but also you cannot put Band-Aids on gaping wounds, and we will not accept that as the response any longer,” said Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland. “Our communities need CARES Act money, HEROES money, state money, private money, public money. We need investment. The key here is to invest in these communities so they have the infrastructure to help heal ourselves.”

Mills’ spokeswoman Lindsay Crete said Thursday afternoon that the governor would reach out to those involved with Thursday’s event to arrange a meeting.

‘CALL US EARLY’

The Mills administration also responded by outlining recent steps to attempt to address the disparity – including expanding access to testing and social services – while pledging to continue working with leaders of immigrant and minority communities.

“The disparities in Maine’s health care system are unacceptable, and we are committed to making progress on these issues and continuing a constructive dialogue,” said Jackie Farwell, spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

One example given Thursday of a top-down directive was DHHS’ recent efforts to provide hotel rooms to infected individuals so they can isolate away from family members in crowded living conditions. Maine CDC officials said last week they made arrangements with hotels in Portland, Lewiston, Waterville, Bangor and Augusta.

But several speakers said the department did not initially offer other support services, such as ensuring individuals – some of whom had never stayed in a hotel before – had access to food or child care for their families back home.

John Ochira, South Sudanese Community Association.

John Ochira with the South Sudanese Community Association gave an example of family isolating in a hotel without any way to cook meals. As a result, organizations are having to respond “on the fly” to try to address such issues after the fact.

“This is what happens, they end up in a problem state and then they call the community,” Ochira said. “We are so tired of this. I do not want to hear from the state after they hit a wall. Call us early, involve us in that discussion early.”

LARGEST DISPARITY

Recent data from The COVID Tracking Project shows that Maine has the nation’s largest racial disparity – at roughly 26 percentage points – when comparing the size of the Black population with its share of the COVID-19 cases.

By comparison, Black residents comprise just 6 percent and 9 percent, respectively, of COVID-19 cases in neighboring New Hampshire and Vermont, which have similar racial and ethnic demographics to Maine. Nationally, Black Americans represent 13 percent of the population but 21 percent of coronavirus-related deaths, although in Maine only one of the 103 deaths to date was a Black resident.

Community leaders as well as public health officials say the disparities highlight – and are exacerbated by – historic inequities in Maine for minority communities regarding quality housing, access to health care, employment opportunities and job security.

State Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross of Portland Steve Collins/Sun Journal

The coronavirus pandemic appears to be hitting immigrant communities in the Portland and Lewiston/Auburn areas the hardest. Among the contributing factors are more crowded living conditions and the fact that minority or immigrant workers fill a disproportionate share of higher-risk frontline jobs during the pandemic, including in health care settings.

“I am that disparity,” said Bright Lukusa, a college student from Lewiston who also works as a home health care professional. “I am that statistic, and so is my brother, my mother and many others in our communities.”

Lukusa said she was potentially exposed to coronavirus twice through her job, but during the first instance in April, was initially denied access to a test because she wasn’t exhibiting symptoms. Two months later, she still faced hurdles getting tested despite working in health care and having vulnerable family members.

“We are so closely knit together and we live so close together in condensed areas that it is very easy to transit the coronavirus,” Lukusa said. “So I feel like the state of Maine and elected officials have to do targeted outreach and go into our communities and try to work with us. And I don’t see that happening.”

‘MORE WORK TO DO’

State officials have been meeting with immigrant community leaders for more than two months to try to address the issue. But Thursday’s event revealed starkly different perceptions about the productivity of those meetings.

Mufalo Chitam, executive director of the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The Maine CDC and DHHS are working with health care companies to bring testing services into immigrant communities and bringing on additional community health workers to serve as “cultural liaisons” to help translate and explain the process.

Additionally, the Maine CDC is seeking to expand the number of people who can help with the contact-tracing process and is providing hotel rooms where infected individuals can safely isolate away from their families to reduce the risk of transmission.

Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah said racial and ethnic minority populations are his agency’s top priorities alongside residents of nursing home and congregate care settings.

“The department wants to ensure that people of color have the same access to essential health services, that their symptoms are taken seriously, and that their diagnosis and next steps are clearly explained in culturally appropriate ways and with the help of trusted voices in their communities by deepening our work with community leaders and advocates,” Farwell, the DHHS spokeswoman, said in a statement. “We have more work to do.”

CULTURAL BROKERS

Participants in Thursday’s news conference suggested, however, that many of those efforts have been inadequate or too late. They also lamented a “system” that they said disregards the suggestions of community leaders and, instead, imposes programs not tailored to the unique circumstances of immigrant communities.

Last summer’s wave of asylum seekers arriving in Maine from largely central African countries should help inform the state’s current response, advocates said.

Specifically, Mufalo Chitam with the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition said the emergency housing set up at the Portland Expo underscored the need to embed “cultural brokers” from the community into DHHS efforts on testing, isolation and other aspects of mitigating COVID-19.

“Based on the experience of the Expo, we needed money, we needed support,” said Chitam, who is executive director of the Portland-based nonprofit. “We said we need to put these communities embedded in your system, and that’s what we have been asking. And 14 weeks later, that has not been done. This is why we have been saying we have not been listened to.”

Claude Rwaganje, a Westbrook city councilor, called the meetings with DHHS officials “photo ops” and said they’ve been told that only Mills can create a task force to address the issues.

“Forget about the past 14 weeks and forget about what happened in the past even though it is so painful to all of us,” Rwaganje said. “The one thing that we are asking is can we meet with the governor and can she create this task force so that she can understand the pain and the suffering we are going through as a community. We can’t recognize any working relationship until we see actionable plans put into place.”

Related Headlines

Comments are not available on this story.