Thank you, Mr. Chairman. And thank you to the witnesses for your testimony.
Let me start by offering my most sincere condolences to everyone who has lost a loved one to COVID-19, which has now claimed the lives of nearly 100,000 Americans.
In addition to taking so many precious lives, COVID-19 has upended the livelihoods of tens of millions of Americans. Small businesses have shuttered, workers who have done everything right have lost their jobs, and families are worried about their economic future.
My heart goes out to everyone who has been affected by this pandemic—regardless of race, creed, or national origin.
This pandemic has, in many ways, unified us. This idea—that we’re all in this together—is not just an empty expression or cliché. It’s something I truly believe.
When it comes to COVID, anyone can test positive and anyone can become severely ill. In this sense, the virus doesn’t discriminate. All of us have to take precautions to keep from becoming infected or infecting others.
At the same time, the very fact that the virus does not discriminate is the precise reason we should examine why certain communities of color in this country have been disproportionately devastated by the pandemic, especially on the health care front.
Let me focus my attention on the state I represent—Florida. There, African-Americans make up about 17 percent of the population, but nearly 22 percent of COVID-19 deaths. This trend has been witnessed around the country and highlighted by many of my colleagues.
In Florida, the disparity is even more pronounced in the Hispanic community. Hispanics constitute 26 percent of Florida’s population, but 35 percent of positive COVID-19 cases. In Orange County, which I represent, Hispanics make up 32 percent of the population and a staggering 45 percent of positive cases.
Behind every abstract statistic is a human, and often heartbreaking, story.
For example, in Orange County, there’s an area called Azalea Park, which is a COVID-19 “hotspot.” It’s a working-class neighborhood with a large Puerto Rican population. Many families moved from the U.S. territory to Orlando in recent years, in search of equality and opportunity, fleeing the economic crisis, or Hurricane Maria, or the ongoing earthquakes, or even COVID-19, which has hit the island hard.
For many members of this community, social distancing—whether at home or at work—is difficult or impossible. Often, two-bedroom homes and apartments are shared by three generations of a family. This is in part because of a strong cultural commitment to care for one’s elders, but also because of the housing crisis in Central Florida that makes larger living spaces unavailable or unaffordable.
Many of these men and women are essential workers, reporting to jobs that keep our community running during the pandemic. They often rely on public transportation, where it’s hard to avoid crowds. Others worked in the tourism and hospitality industry, which has been decimated. Because of Florida’s dysfunctional unemployment insurance program, some have struggled to obtain benefits and must secure food from local food pantries, forced to wait in line, unable to socially distance.
If these folks get infected, they go home to crowded houses where they might spread the illness to their family members—especially to the “abuelas” and “abuelos” who can be more vulnerable to the virus because of age or underlying health conditions. Many of these families lack health insurance. Florida has not expanded Medicaid and has one of the highest uninsured rates in the country.
Meanwhile, despite efforts, there is not enough information being provided in Spanish, and mobile testing units weren’t deployed quickly enough to severely-affected communities.
As I said, this virus doesn’t choose who it infects. If one community is ravaged, another will be next. Congress must explore why hotspots have emerged in so many communities of color, and we must provide an appropriate response.
Dr. Fernandez, you’re an expert in health disparities in Hispanic communities.
I gave the example of Azalea Park in my district, and suggested some reasons why it might be a hotspot. Can you discuss any other factors that help explain why Hispanic communities are at higher risk during viral pandemics?
Congress has enacted four bills to help individuals and communities during this crisis, but it’s clearly not enough. If you could list the top three things you would recommend we do going forward, what would they be?