New data shows Covid-19 racial disparities in Vermont

Vermont Department of Health employees collect patient samples at a pop-up Covid-19 testing site in Barre on May 19, 2020. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

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Racial justice advocates are calling for more support for people of color in Vermont after new data revealed that black and Hispanic people are testing positive for Covid-19 at a disproportionately high rate.

Black Vermonters are testing positive for Covid-19 at the highest rate in the state of any racial group, according to statistics on the demographics impacted by the coronavirus compiled by the Vermont Department of Health. The report, which the state plans to update every Friday, looks at the 932 cases of the new coronavirus identified in Vermont from March 5, when the outbreak began in Vermont, through May 14.

The new data prompted advocates to ask lawmakers and Gov. Phil Scott to take steps to address the disparities, including creating a task force to focus on supporting people of color in the state.

According to new data released by the Vermont Department of Health, 3% of people who tested positive for the virus through May 14 were black. The most recent Census demographic data shows that black Vermonters make up 1.5% of the state’s population. 

The majority of people who tested positive for Covid-19 in Vermont — 94.5% — were white, the data shows.

The rate of positive tests per 10,000 people was 26.2 for black or African American Vermonters, according to the health department data. In comparison, the rate for white Vermonters was 13.7 positive cases per 10,000 people. 

Hispanic Vermonters also have a higher rate of positive tests for the virus, according to the data. Per 10,000 people, 18.5 Hispanic people have tested positive for Covid-19, compared to 13 non-Hispanic people who tested positive per 10,000 Vermonters. 

The data, published May 15, is the first analysis that shows racial disparities exist among positive Covid-19 tests, Tracy Dolan, deputy commissioner of the Department of Health, confirmed. The health department was criticized by advocates in early April for not consistently collecting race data on Covid-19 patients when the pandemic first took hold in Vermont.

After the lag in data collection was identified, Xusana Davis, the state's racial equity director, told state lawmakers she would work with the Department of Health to recover the information. Race is still unknown in 7% of cases and ethnicity is unknown in 12% of cases, according to the Department of Health. 

Nationwide, reports find that Covid-19 has been disproportionately impacting people of color. Black Americans are dying from Covid-19 at a rate more than twice that of white Americans, according to APM Research Lab.

Dolan said the data is “absolutely” concerning to public health officials. She said the disparity is a symptom of systemic racism in American’s health care systems. Multiple studies have identified discrimination that people of color face when receiving medical care. Additionally, black and Hispanic people are more likely to work in low-wage, essential worker service jobs that put them at a higher risk to contract the virus. 

Dolan said the department is not doing anything “unique” to address the disparity. The state is continuing to reach out to immigrants through community organizations to ensure that educational material about Covid-19 is being disseminated to more vulnerable communities, she said. 

“I can’t say I’m surprised by the data,” said Mark Hughes, executive director of Justice for All. “I’m really trying to figure out why it took them so long.” 

Hughes said his organization is going to ask Gov. Phil Scott and legislators to put together a task force that would explore what kind of support might be needed, whether financial or medical, for communities of color that have been impacted by the disparity. 

“I think a statewide response to Covid-19 to protect people of color is what we should really be talking about,” Hughes said. “To collect data just to see that we’re being impacted disproportionately, adversely, without actually using it to address the issue is really nonsensical.” 

The Rutland area NAACP also supports the creation of a task force, said Tabitha Moore, the organization’s president, as does the Vermont ACLU. 

“It’s definitely concerning,” James Lyall, executive director of the ACLU Vermont, wrote in an email. “And is unfortunately consistent with what we’re seeing in other states. This is what systemic racism looks like in this country.”

Rebecca Kelley, communications director for Gov. Phil Scott, said that the disparity presented by the data has caught his attention. Before endorsing the idea of a task force, Kelley said Scott will first consult Davis. 

“The Governor would like to better understand what it might indicate,” Kelley wrote in an email, referring to the data. “He’s asked Racial Equity Director Xusana Davis to look into this data and report back to him, and we’ll await her response.” 

Sen. Ginny Lyons, D-Chittenden, who chairs the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, was noncommittal when asked about supporting a task force. She said she’s not against the idea, but she wondered if it should be expanded to include other vulnerable populations, like the elderly or those with certain diseases that make them more susceptible to the virus. 

“I’m all for doing whatever we can to protect individuals in our state,” Lyons said.

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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.


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