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After newly reported outbreaks have increased the disproportionate share of black and immigrant Mainers who have been infected with the coronavirus, a coalition of advocacy groups and lawmakers have been pushing the state for a more targeted response.
Black Mainers accounted for 20 percent of the cases in which racial data is disclosed as of Wednesday’s data from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, while they represent only 1.6 percent of the state’s population, in an increase from the past week. White Mainers make up 75 percent of cases while comprising 94.6 percent of the population.
That disparity has prompted the coalition of immigrants’ rights organizations, some lawmakers and community leaders to meet regularly with the administration of Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, said Michael Kebede, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine.
They have pushed Mills to convene a task force to track data, increase mobile testing sites in communities of color, conduct culturally appropriate contact tracing and allocate resources to protect those in low-paying frontline jobs in which minorities are overrepresented. A task force would strengthen the state’s ability to respond to vulnerable populations, Kebede said.
Maine has not committed to such an effort yet, but negotiations are still under way. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, told reporters on Friday that the state has “engaged in very fruitful and productive conversations” with minority and immigrant populations since the outbreak “to understand what response is needed” and “then act on those requests as quickly and expeditiously as possible.”
After an outbreak earlier this month at Tyson Foods, a meat-packaging facility in Portland with an immigrant-heavy workforce, Shah said that the state would strengthen its contact tracing efforts to be multilingual and culturally appropriate to those communities.
In a statement, Maine Department of Health and Human Services spokesperson Jackie Farwell said the state has increased translations of public health information during the pandemic and is working to reduce barriers to testing and treatment by expanding testing capacity and creating accessible testing locations.”
“The Department of Health and Human Services has entered into several contracts which will provide culturally appropriate supports and services to communities across the state,” she said.
On Thursday, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, announced that the neighboring state had assembled an equity response team. Kebede said the response highlights the absence of a similar program in Maine, where the racial disparity is far greater. In New Hampshire, 1.4 percent of people identify as black, compared with 7 percent of known coronavirus cases.
“It’s disappointing to see a Republican governor in a neighboring state establish an equity response team and not see Maine do something similar,” Kebede said.
Watch: What Maine says about people of color being affected by coronavirus