Now Law: Sumter, Jimenez and Carter Bill to Create COVID-19 Pandemic Task Force to Study Racial and Health Disparities

To more clearly understand how the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted communities of color, legislation sponsored by Assembly Democrats Shavonda Sumter, Angelica Jimenez and Linda Carter to establish a task force examining racial and health disparities related to the coronavirus was signed into law Friday.

The law (formerly bill A-4004) creates a 23-member Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Pandemic Task Force on Racial and Health Disparities in the New Jersey Department of Health. The group will conduct a thorough and comprehensive study of how and why the pandemic has affected minority and vulnerable communities in New Jersey, as well as the short and long-term consequences for these communities.

“Long before the COVID-19 pandemic began, people of color faced enormous disparities in our healthcare system,” said Sumter (D-Bergen, Passaic). “African-American and Latino mothers saw higher mortality rates. A disproportionate number of minority families lacked access to health insurance and care. And now communities of color are being impacted by COVID-19 at an alarming rate. We need to understand how and why these disparities are happening, and what we can do to mitigate the harm this pandemic has caused.”

The task force will be charged with studying and making recommendations to improve existing data systems to ensure race, ethnicity and demographic information is included in data on COVID-19 infections and deaths. It will evaluate access to and quality of treatment/services delivered to various racial and ethnic populations, receive testimony from members of these vulnerable communities, and develop strategies to address and reduce racial, ethnic and health disparities and systemic inequalities that have amplified the COVID-19 death rate among minority and vulnerable communities.

“This public health crisis has exacerbated deep inequities across New Jersey, particularly racial health disparities,” said Jimenez (D-Bergen, Hudson). “Communities of color have shouldered a large burden in this pandemic and will undoubtedly need unique assistance to recover. The work of this task force will help us get a clearer picture of the extent of the pandemic’s toll on these communities and continue our efforts to promote health equity for all.”

“As our state works toward recovery from this public health and economic crisis, we must begin asking ourselves some tough questions, including why this pandemic has disproportionately affected people of color,” said Carter (D-Middlesex, Somerset, Union). “The numbers are staggering and unnerving. We must take action to end inequalities that impact social determinants of health like access to healthcare, work opportunities and transportation.”

Additionally, the task force will evaluate the communication, messaging and dissemination of information regarding testing, contact tracing, and other related public health approaches necessary to achieve health care equity and cultural competence. It will also assess other issues such as the impact of COVID-19 on mental and physical health of essential workers; access to childcare services; and the prevalence of intimate partner violence, among others.

The task force will include fourteen public members appointed by the Governor, some of which will be selected based upon recommendations from the Legislature and others based upon certain requirements stipulated in the bill. The remaining nine members will be from various relevant State departments.

The act takes effect immediately.