Thousands of Texans throughout the state have been impacted by the coronavirus epidemic, from businesses to health care workers to laid-off employees to home-schooled students. The number of confirmed cases and deaths from the virus continue to rise. The disproportionate impact of the coronavirus on Black communities has caused many officials to work to bring statewide awareness to the issue’s devastating effect on the African-American population.

The Defender spoke with several state officials about how they’re tackling the coronavirus issue.

Garnet Coleman

Rep. Garnet F. Coleman (D-Houston) has taken a focus on health, introducing legislation to be taken up next session to re-establish and improve Texas’ health disparities office.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has made it painfully obvious that the state of Texas made a huge mistake in defunding the Office of Minority Health Statistics. In the next legislative session, I will file legislation to re-establish and improve the Office of Minority Health Statistics and Engagement to continue working to eliminate racial health disparities in Texas,” he said.

He’s also working to get health insurance coverage for a million recently unemployed Texans:

“Texans filed over a million unemployment claims in March. Many newly unemployed Texans who had received health insurance through their employer are now going to be without health insurance,” he said. “If Texas had expanded Medicaid, many of these individuals would be caught by the safety net. However, because Texas has not expanded Medicaid—many of these people and their families will fall in the coverage gap, meaning they will have earned too much to qualify for Medicaid, but not enough to qualify for ACA subsides in the marketplace. Hence they will have no healthcare during a pandemic or have to pay approximately $1,697 plus up to a 2% administrative fee a month for them and their families through COBRA(based on average monthly premium cost for employer covered plans in the South Region in 2019 Kaiser Family Foundation Survey). Texas needs to ACT NOW to expand Medicaid.”

Shawn Thierry

Rep. Shawn Thierry (D-Houston) has successfully formed a bipartisan coalition of House Members requesting the implementation of a COVID-19 Racial Disparities Task Force addressing the mortality rate for African Americans.

Health care officials recently revealed that nationwide, Black patients represent a disproportionate number of positive coronavirus cases, have the highest rates of COVID-19 intensive care unit intubations, and that the mortality rate for African Americans is as high as five times that of other racial groups.

“It is hurtful to witness the disproportionate rate at which the coronavirus has attacked the Black population. I was shocked to learn that while African Americans are less than 23% of our Houston population, we account for more than half of the deaths from COVID-19.  Unfortunately, we do not have statewide data broken down by race/ethnicity on COVID-19 cases, which makes it even more challenging to address these health disparities,” stated Rep. Thierry.

Co-authored by forty-nine House Members, the Emergency COVID-19 Racial Disparities Task Force letter offered a framework for the Task Force recommending the study of a number of critical issues. The suggested charges include: collection and reporting data regarding the number of COVID-19 cases identified by race and ethnicity statewide; addressing the role that social determinants of health have on the increase of COVID-19 contagion in the African American population, and building an effective public awareness and education campaign targeted to underserved communities with specific emphasis on reducing community spread.

Thierry has also requested the City of Houston and Harris County issue executive orders, requiring the use of face masks for any one traveling in City of Houston or Harris County, aged four or older.

“We are at a critical point in our battle against COVID-19. Very soon, millions of our residents will once again be in close proximity to each other, however, we know the coronavirus is still not completely contained. We must remain diligent and continue to utilize all sensible measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus cases,” she said, adding that both entities supply face masks to those who can’t afford them. She also requested the implementation of COVID-19 public service campaigns targeted to support underserved communities.

Senfronia Thompson

Rep. Senfronia Thompson, the chair of the House’s public health committee, has been at the forefront of making sure her constituents get testing, especially in light of the fact that Texas currently ranks 48th per capita among U.S. states in testing, and first in the rate of uninsured residents..

“Without proper testing, we cannot identify, nor can we isolate individuals who may be among us, spreading the COVID-19,” Rep. Thompson said. “We need to continue following the recommendations of health experts. Isolate, except for when we are performing essential functions, and stay six feet apart so we don’t end up being six feet under.”

She’s also focused on school lunches, the impact on rural health community, rural hospitals and vaccine studies when it’s relating to a state of emergency.

“From that March 10 meeting, we learned that we did not have enough tests and we definitely didn’t have enough, PPEs and equipment. So that has been an ongoing effort,” she said.

Rep. Thompson was among 45 state lawmakers who wrote a letter urging Gov. Greg Abbott to direct Texas to take part in a pilot program that allow SNAP recipients to buy groceries online. The letter pointed to challenges the pandemic has created, especially for SNAP recipients living in food deserts who have to rely on dollar stores to get by.

“Many constituents living in food deserts are also members of at-risk populations being directed to maintain strict social distancing; the use of public transportation to travel to the grocery stores outside of their communities could endanger their health,” she said. “We were concerned about that, as well as the expansion of  Medicaid so that we’d be able to have more people covered and continuing to be able to get people tested. There are a lot of people who don’t have insurance, don’t have a private  doctors, particularly if there are on the lower end of the economic ladder. So we’ve been making sure those people aren’t forgotten.

“We also have done many things in order to help constituents such as, working with the apartment association, as well as various housing authorities, both federal and state. We want to make sure people are not evicted because they happened to be out of work or unable to pay their rent or utilities,” she added. “We’re not kicking back watching television, doing nothing. We work six to eight hours every day, constantly, religiously from Monday through Friday and even on the weekend trying to find solutions to problems that often people was called us about. And even those things that they don’t call us about that. We recognize that they may need help and we try to get those things done.”