Final Reading: Racial Equity director aims to recover race data on Covid-19 patients

Xusana Davis

Xusana Davis, executive  director of Racial Equity for the Agency of Administration, testifies at the Statehouse on Feb. 4, 2020. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger


— After the Vermont Department of Health admitted last week that it was not consistently collecting race data on the state’s Covid-19 patients, Senate Health and Welfare and House Health Care took testimony on the issue today in a joint session. 

Xusana Davis, the state’s executive director of racial equity, told lawmakers that since the problem has been discovered, more race data has been collected by health care providers about Covid-19 patients. However, the data set is still incomplete, she said, which gives the state only a hazy picture about whether people of color are being disproportionately affected by the virus, a problem that has been reported elsewhere around the country. 

The data collected so far, she said, does not point to this issue in Vermont. 

She said work will be done to recover race data about patients for whom the information was previously not collected. “We can’t draw firm conclusions, but we can start tracking patterns,” Davis said. “I would rather see an incomplete data set than not see a data set at all.” - Grace Elletson

— House Human Services is struggling to determine whether legislative action is needed to keep parents, who have lost custody of their children, from visiting them in foster care in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. 

Yesterday, the committee heard from Allison Green, legal director of the National Association of Counsel for Children, who strongly opposed the proposal to limit in-person parent visitation. “Although this proposal is well intentioned, it is problematic and out of step,” Green said. “In-person family time is critical for parent child attachment and reunification.”

But today, Rep. Jessica Brumsted, D-Shelburne, pushed back on Green’s testimony. “Foster kids, one of the main things they say is, ‘Don’t single us out. Treat us like any other kid,’” Brumsted said. “I feel like where we were headed was in that direction,” she said, referring to the proposal to limit in-person parent contact. 

Committee Chair Ann Pugh, D-South Burlington, said the committee should come closer to a decision about how it will act on Thursday. - Grace Elletson

— House Human Services also heard from Sean Brown, deputy commissioner of the Economic Services Division of the Department for Children and Families, who said that since the pandemic took hold in Vermont, demand for his division’s economic services programs, like 3SquaresVT and Reach Up, has surged. 

Before the pandemic, he said his department would see on average about 400 applications for 3SquaresVT benefits and about 80 for Reach Up benefits per week. But when the impacts of the disease began hitting Vermont in March, in one week applications for 3SquaresVT surged to 1,237 and applications for Reach Up surged to 300. 

The next week, the department saw 2,009 3SquaresVT applications and 388 Reach Up applications. Brown said his division is spending a lot of money, but he’s reassured by the federal aid promised in the CARES Act that his programs can draw on. - Grace Elletson

— Will Senning, the director of elections and campaign finance for the secretary of state's office, told House Gov Ops lawmakers that it must be assumed it will be "less safe to vote in person" in the state's August primary and November general election.

Senning's testimony comes as House legislators mull the need for the secretary of state to expand its early/absentee ballot apparatus to allow every registered voter in the state to receive a ballot in the mail. Senning said that regardless of what is done with early and absentee ballots, "there will have to be in-person polls open on election day" to allow access for people who may not be able to receive early voting slips.

Vice Chair Rep. John Gannon, D-Wilmington, asked Senning if "ballot quarantine" — the idea of having ballots sit untouched for a period of time before opening — has been discussed.

"It's an interesting thought," Senning said. - Kit Norton 

— James Pepper, of Vermont's Department of State's Attorneys and Sheriffs, said the state's attorneys may soon put forward a legislative proposal to offer some inmates medical furlough or compassionate release during the Covid-19 crisis.

Pepper told the Senate Judiciary Committee that state's attorneys have received about 50 requests to resentence inmates, or reconsider cases during the pandemic. Last week, the Department of Corrections announced a Covid-19 outbreak at the Northwest State Correctional Facility in St. Albans, with more than 30 inmates infected with the virus. - Xander Landen

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Grace Elletson

About Grace

Grace Elletson is VTDigger's government accountability reporter, covering politics, state agencies and the Legislature. She is part of the BOLD Women's Leadership Network and a recent graduate of Ithaca College, where she was editor in chief of the Ithacan. She previously interned for the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Christian Science Monitor and The Cape Cod Times, her hometown newspaper.

Email: [email protected]

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