By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
Disparities in health care, education, food and more existed long before the COVID-19 pandemic began. The pandemic brought these issues into focus and forced everyone to pay attention to the struggles existing within their own communities.
While the response to these disparities has varied on a local level, the end goal is the same – to eradicate the inequities and make the world a more equitable place for everyone, not just the favored few. As part of its response, the White House created a COVID-19 Equity Task Force.
Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith is the chair of said task force and in an interview with the Milwaukee Courier, she discussed how the task force will continue to implement equity beyond the pandemic and what can be done to prevent another year like 2020.
The task force was originally envisioned by Vice President Kamala Harris while still in the senate, Nunez-Smith said. Harris recognized that different perspectives and expert voices needed to be brought together to act as a guide when it came to addressing disparities, she said.
“We have to provide recommendations that will mitigate [and] eliminate the inequities we see in this current pandemic and then get us on a better path for recovery,” Nunez- Smith said. “We know, it’s not a matter of if but when our country will face other stress like this.”
The task force is a combination of people from the government and individuals who have lived experience, she said, adding that its an advisory group. The work has been incredibly intensive, she said.
Nunez-Smith also serves as the senior adviser to the White House COVID- 19 Response Team. She noted that while groups such as the Equity Task Force are looking beyond the pandemic, the government remains invested in the now.
This summer, COVID-19 cases began to rise after declining earlier this year. While the warmer weather encouraged more people to be outside, Nunez-Smith noted that the increased case numbers has more to do with the Delta variant and the unvaccinated population.
“I think the Delta variant was the real game changer as we’ve seen cases increase,” she said.
The Delta variant is much more transmissible, she said. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease and Prevention, the Delta variant is two times more contagious compared to other variants. Furthermore, the CDC reported that 76.0% of eligible adults have at least one vaccination as of Wednesday, Sept. 14.
Nunez-Smith remains hopeful that the current situation will not relapse to 2020 and part of that hope stems from the vaccines. The White House has centered equity when it comes to its vaccine distribution, she said.
This entails making sure that everybody and every community, particularly those hit hardest by the pandemic, have access to the vaccines and that they are available at trustworthy venues, she said. She added that equitable distribution addresses structural barriers such as transportation, childcare, paid time off and so on.
“We know that the vaccines work and that they’re safe and effective,” she said. “It’s not too late for people to go out and get vaccinated. It’s important to do it for yourself, for your family, for your community.”
The data is encouraging, Nunez-Smith said. It shows that communities across the nation, particularly minority groups, are getting vaccinated and part of that is thanks to partnerships with local leaders, groups and businesses such as barbershops, she said.
“We’re seeing the gaps close in terms of uptake of vaccinations by race and ethnicity,” she said.
Nunez-Smith noted that the science supports mask wearing and hand washing, two measures that help slow the spread of the virus. Still, she said, hospitals and health care works are being stretched to their limits and the White House remains committed to providing resources where needed.
At the moment one of the top priorities is testing and making sure that everyone has access to it, she said.
“I continue to hold a lot of hope and optimism,” Nunez-Smith said. “I know the light gets brighter and dimmer, but we have all the tools and the leadership to get us where we need to be.”