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Not all Utahns are recovering equally from COVID-19

The pandemic’s aftereffects deal with both physical and economic health.

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Smith’s pharmacy technician Wendy Flores administers a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine during a vaccination event at a church in Salt Lake City on Saturday, March 20, 2021. The Utah Pacific Islander Health Coalition, Smith’s Pharmacy and Salt Lake County teamed up to host the event, with the plan of administering up to 1,170 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to people of Pacific Islander descent.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Researchers estimate about 10% of COVID-19 patients become “long haulers” — people experiencing COVID-19 symptoms for weeks or months, with no well-understood reason for why. Moreover, one in three COVID-19 patients suffer from some kind of medical and neuropsychological disorder at least 6 months after. Across the world, we are gradually understanding more about the economic and policy implications for caring for these people and their families.   

To make matters more challenging, racial and ethnic minority communities have experienced COVID-19 infections and illness at much higher rates compared with white communities. Of an estimated 40,000 COVID-19 “long-haulers” in Utah, including many thousands more with some lingering health disorders, a disproportionate number are people of color who already face significant healthcare disparities. This means African American, Latinx, Asian American and Pacific Islander, and Indigenous communities in Utah are likely facing long-term health and lasting economic impacts at disproportional rates, too.

Even before the pandemic, racial and ethnic minority communities experienced severe and persistent racial disparities in health coverage, chronic health conditions, mental health and mortality.  These disparities were never because of individual or group behavior but decades of systemic inequality in economic, housing and health care systems. When the pandemic struck, many members of communities of color were vulnerable to infections because they were deemed essential workers, lived in multi-generational and extended households, or had pre-existing health complications. 

The moral and practical implications of long-term COVID-19 for the overall health and productivity of our society are immense and just now becoming clearer. Many thousands of Utahns may need long-term care and economic support — as many may not necessarily be able to work or earn a living to pay for those treatments or be able to care for their families as they expected before the pandemic. 

As Utah decides how to prioritize its share of Federal relief resources, we must be mindful of the potential long-term healthcare needs for long-haulers, and specifically Utah’s communities of color. We should do everything we can to mitigate and prevent future harm for our most vulnerable communities. 

The state’s Multicultural Advisory Committee, formed as part of Utah’s Coronavirus response, suggested a number of general, short-term and long-term policy actions. In the near-term, the state is making some progress by involving community partners, providing inclusive education about COVID-19, and coordinating with Federal partners to encourage communities of color to get vaccinated. Recent data shows communities of color, as in many states, have not been vaccinated proportionately. Fortunately, a growing body of evidence shows the vaccines may be helpful for some long-haulers

However, the much-needed long-term actions to tackle the racial health disparities post-pandemic will require earnest effort and focus by policymakers. We support creating an actionable state racial equity and social justice plan in collaboration with state commissions, divisions, departments, and community stakeholders. We also agree we should increase funding support and lengthen funding cycles for community-based organizations and improve coordination between private- and public-sector organizations for improving health outcomes for communities of color. 

Moving forward, addressing these healthcare disparities in our communities creates an opportunity for Utah to enhance its critical healthcare infrastructure and strengthen connections with Utah’s diverse communities. As policymakers, we are obligated to help Utah – and all Utahns experiencing aftereffects of this awful disease — to recover and grow stronger together.

Rep. Karen Kwan (D-House District 34) represents Taylorsville and Murray. Rep. Jennifer Dailey-Provost (D-House District 24) represents Salt Lake City.