Gov. Janet Mills announced Thursday a $5 million infusion into Maine’s rental assistance program, allowing for a doubling of the monthly payments, as well as an additional $1 million aimed at addressing the massive racial and ethnic disparity in COVID-19 cases.

Beginning Monday, MaineHousing will accept applications from renters for payments of up to $1,000 per month for three months, which is double the current $500 assistance authorized in April as the coronavirus pandemic hit Maine’s economy. Payments will be paid directly to landlords who, in turn, must agree to not evict tenants.

In announcing the expanded rental assistance, Mills said more than 6,700 renters or families have been approved for payments since April to the tune of $3.3 million, with thousands more applications pending. But Mills called the $5 million “just a starting point” and said that she hopes the federal government will provide states with additional funding that can be used for rental assistance.

“As the Maine Supreme Judicial Court now plans to reopen courts for (eviction) filings next week, and as the federal government appears to be poised to reduce unemployment benefits … I am very concerned that Maine people will be facing a housing cliff, as it were, losing income and also losing rent relief and becoming subject to eviction,” Mills said.

Daniel Brennan, director of MaineHousing, said “we know that Mainers need more help – unemployment is high and many who are back to work are not back full time.”

RACIAL DISPARITY

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services also announced an additional $1 million aimed at addressing one of the nation’s worst racial and ethnic disparities when it comes to COVID-19 cases.

The money from the state’s Coronavirus Relief Fund will be provided to organizations already working in immigrant and minority communities to educate individuals about COVID-19 as well as on prevention and support services for those in need.

Those services could include food, child care, health care or other supports for individuals at risk or already being affected by COVID-19. Part of the money will also flow to community-based organizations working to overcome cultural and linguistic barriers that could prevent or discourage individuals from seeking testing.

“We want to make sure that everybody has access to services … so that if they test positive, they don’t have to worry about feeding their children, they don’t have to worry about temporary housing, they don’t have to worry about other services that are so vital to keep those families together and keep people safe and healthy,” Mills said.

 

Karlene McRae holds her son, Moses, 14, and husband, Kamau, during the Black Lives Matter protest June 7 in Augusta. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

Maine has one of the worst disparities in the nation when it comes to the racial and ethnic breakdown of who is contracting COVID-19.

While Blacks make up only 1.4 percent of all residents in Maine, they account for roughly 25 percent of all COVID-19 cases in which the race of the individual is known, according to the most recent figures from the Maine CDC. That continues to be the largest gap in the nation for Black residents, although several other states have even greater disparities among Hispanic or Latino communities, according to racial and ethnic data compiled by The COVID Tracking Project.

In Maine, the reasons for the disparity are numerous – and complex. Minority communities in Maine have traditionally had less access to health care and work in lower-paying jobs with fewer benefits, such as paid time off.

Maine’s small but growing immigrant communities have been hit hardest, particularly in the Greater Portland and Lewiston/Auburn areas.

New Mainers are more likely work in so-called “front-line jobs” in manufacturing or in food processing facilities, nursing homes, hospitals and grocery stores. Many immigrant families also live in more crowded conditions where the virus can spread quickly from person to person.

‘WE’VE BEEN SEEN’

Leaders of Maine’s minority and immigrant communities have been demanding that the Mills administration do more to address the disparity in COVID-19 cases. During a virtual news conference in late June, leaders criticized what they described as a top-down approach from the administration and called on Mills to meet with them.

That meeting took place two weeks ago, and Mills said she also watched the roughly 90-minute news conference to hear those concerns.

“I was impressed with some of what the local organizations are doing and some of the challenges they are having as well,” Mills said.

One of the key requests from leaders in Maine’s immigrant and minority populations is that the Mills administration provide funding directly to community-based organizations whose members know the language, culture and unique needs of each community.

Mufalo Chitam, executive director of the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, said part of the problem under the existing bureaucracy is it takes too long to get services to people in need. And when there are delays, Chitam said, case numbers continue to rise.

The $1 million announced Thursday will go to organizations “that do have capacity and can directly jump into those roles” in their local communities, Chitam said in an interview. Additionally, her organization and others are working with DHHS to further streamline the contracting process so other groups already on the ground can quickly mobilize.

Chitam said she “absolutely” believes the groups’ concerns were heard by Mills and DHHS officials.

“It’s not just our voices being heard. For me, we’ve been seen,” Chitam said. “What COVID did is it brought to light the disparities that people of color face.”

That said, Chitam said lower participation in recent drives to test more New Mainers for COVID-19 illustrate the need for more education and awareness led by community leaders. The potential reopening of schools will create additional challenges that also will need to be addressed, she said.

DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew added that the partnership with groups – whether in immigrant communities or among long-standing minority populations – could help detect infections sooner, thereby limiting further transmission.

“What we have heard loud and clear is that the community members can identify these needs, they can provide these services, and we want to take down barriers and make sure we are supporting them in doing so,” Lambrew said.

27 NEW CASES, 1 DEATH

Earlier Thursday, the Maine CDC reported 27 new cases of COVID-19 as well as one additional death – a man in his 80s from Kennebec County. To date, 122 individuals in Maine have died after contracting COVID-19.

After updating its figures for probable and out-of-state cases, the Maine CDC reported a total of 3,888 confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19 since mid-March. But the state continues to have among the lowest death and infection rates in the nation.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, noted that the 0.62 percent of the 2,725 molecular tests reported on Wednesday came back as positive, which lowered the seven-day weighted average to less than 1 percent. The national positivity rate, by comparison, was 8 percent on Wednesday.

The 27 additional cases reported Thursday is down slightly from Wednesday, but also slightly higher than the rolling average of 25 new cases daily for the previous week. Maine has yet to see the surge in cases that many southern and western states have experienced in recent weeks.

After accounting for the 122 deaths and the 3,345 people who have recovered from the disease, Maine CDC was reporting 421 active cases of COVID-19. That is an increase of 12 from Wednesday’s figure.

Eleven people were hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Thursday and three were in critical care beds, with both of those figures unchanged since Wednesday. Three people were connected to ventilators.

Statewide, there were 144 ICU beds and 267 ventilators available, indicating that Maine’s health care system is not experiencing the COVID-related strain being seen in other parts of the country.

Nationwide, there have been more than 4.4 million cases of the disease caused by the coronavirus as well as in excess of 150,000 deaths, which is by far the largest number of deaths of any country, according to tracking by Johns Hopkins University.

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