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Texas Lawmakers Want To Resurrect The Office Of Minority Health In Light Of COVID-19 Racial Disparities

The pandemic has been disproportionately affecting communities of color in Texas — and advocates are raising concerns that the state's COVID-19 vaccine rollout so far hasn’t taken that into account.

Some Texas lawmakers think this is a good reason to bring back a state agency that was focused on health issues facing racial minorities.

For a little less than a decade, the state had an agency that looked at how institutional racism affected health outcomes in Texas. At the end of its run, it was called the Office of Minority Health Statistics and Engagement.

It officially closed its doors Aug. 31, 2018 after lawmakers defunded it the year before.

State Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, said she is still not exactly sure why.

“There’s no real transparency about why it happened and how it happened, other than it did happen,” she said.

The agency was stripped of its budget behind closed doors during the last phase of the budget writing process. At that point, she said, it was nearly impossible for lawmakers to amend the budget. So, by the time they voted on it, she said, it was too late to do anything.

“It wasn’t until later that it was brought to our attention that this had been defunded,” Howard said. “And so now we have been talking about it ever since to try to get it back in place.”

Less than two years after the agency closed its doors, a deadly virus ripped through the state — and Black and Latino Texans were more likely to get sick, be hospitalized and die from exposure to it.

And now that there’s a vaccine for COVID-19, lawmakers are worried those health disparities won’t be addressed.

State Rep. Sheryl Cole, D-Austin, represents most of Austin's Eastern Crescent, which is largely more racially diverse and impoverished than communities on the West Side of the city.

She said she already sees a problem.

For example, Cole points to a map of the roughly 65 vaccine providers in Austin.

“Only nine of those are east of [I-35],” she said. “So, without a doubt we are seeing disparate treatment of distribution and providers in East [I-35] and in the northeast crescent as well.”

RELATED |Texas Is Relying On Chain Stores To Get COVID-19 Vaccines Out. In Austin, They Aren't Near Communities Of Color.

Howard said she thinks this kind of thing could have been avoided if there had been an Office of Minority Health in Texas. She said there would have been someone from that agency likely working with other state health officials as they planned to rollout vaccines.

“There was not any representation of anyone who was specifically looking at disproportionate impacts,” Howard said.

Howard said it would have been obvious to anyone focused on health disparities that the state's method for distributing vaccines would create a situation where some communities of color had fewer providers than other more affluent communities.

“If somebody was paying attention to that, if that was something that their focus was, perhaps that could have been addressed ahead of time,” she said.

But lawmakers also see an opportunity here.

Cole said all of this might inspire the Texas Legislature to resurrect the Office of Minority Health.

“This will be a priority item in light of COVID,” she said.

Cole said this is actually one of the Legislative Black Caucus’ main priorities as the Legislature meets in a few days.

“I think it is a high priority because of COVID and the disparate impact that it has had on communities of color,” she said.

And if this all leads to Texas finally having an Office of Minority Health — just like almost every other state in the country — Howard said she thinks it could be a big help when other issues crop up in the future.

“The office would have the great potential, I think, to anticipate, prevent and create new methods of delivery that would ensure more equitable outcomes,” she said.

Got a tip? Email Ashley Lopez at alopez@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @AshLopezRadio.

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