The COVID-19 Racial Disparities Task Force Act, which BuzzFeed News received in advance, would require the director of Secretary of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar, to create a panel of health care experts and community leaders to gather data and provide recommendations on the coronavirus response in communities of color who have been disproportionately affected by the disease.
Harris’s proposal comes after BuzzFeed News reported that the coronavirus has killed black Americans at outsize rates throughout the US. Insufficient housing, high-risk jobs, and poor health — all a result of longstanding inequalities — contribute to the disparity, experts say.
In New York City, which has become the epicenter of the global pandemic, black and Hispanic people account for more than 60% of deaths in, according to state data. The disparity also exists in other metropolitan areas, including in Chicago, Milwaukee, and Louisiana.
“The disproportionate impact is no doubt a reflection of persistent income disparities, lower access to health care, and generations of environmental injustice that make communities of color more vulnerable to the virus,” Harris told BuzzFeed News in a statement.
The task force would provide weekly reports to Congress and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on the distribution of COVID-19 resources throughout the hardest-hit communities of color including ventilators, personal protection equipment, testing supplies, and vaccines.
The task force would also advise federal agencies on disbursing money from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which includes funding for small businesses and education grants for states.
Sens. Cory Booker, Michael Bennet, Bernie Sanders, Sheldon Whitehouse, Sherrod Brown, and Tina Smith will sponsor the bill.
"Early reports overwhelmingly show that COVID-19 is disproportionately infecting and killing minorities across the nation,” Harris said. “And sadly — but not surprisingly — what we’re seeing reflects long-standing inequities in our health care and economic systems.”
Harris’s bill also calls on the CDC to publish more detailed race and ethnicity data for COVID-19 as it relates to hospitalizations, ventilation, and mortality rates.
The CDC agreed to publish race and ethnicity data for COVID-19 cases, after members of Congress, across both parties, sent letters asking them to do so, but has subsequently released incomplete statistics.
The task force could help to settle disputes between local and federal governments who disagree on how to distribute pandemic funding. On Monday, a federal judge ruled that the Trump administration could not give relief funds to for-profit native corporations that were meant to help tribal communities.
Rep. Robin Kelly, who represents parts of Chicago, is introducing the same legislation in the House.
“It’s critical that we examine these disparities at the highest possible levels of our government and develop solutions to address, reduce, and end them,” Kelly told BuzzFeed News in a statement. “Fundamentally, we need this analysis to give us hard, in-your-face proof of what we’ve known for generations to drive policy change.”
The Senate is scheduled to return to session on May 4. The House had planned to return to Washington as well, but reversed course on Tuesday and postponed resuming regularly scheduled congressional workdays so it’s unclear when the bill would be considered.
“These inequities will be exacerbated if the federal government fails to provide a tailored response to the unique needs of these communities,” said Harris.