This story will be updated.
Gov. Janet Mills’ administration said Thursday it is investing $1 million from its coronavirus relief fund to address the racial and ethnic disparities that have left people of color disproportionately exposed to the pandemic in a predominantly white state.
The funds will go directly to organizations that are run by people in those hard-hit communities, and it will expand a number of education and prevention efforts while increasing the eligibility for some coronavirus-related services, according to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.
The announcement comes as Black people in Maine have been infected with the virus disproportionately, at one of the highest rates in the country. Even though they make up just 1 percent of the state’s population, they have accounted for a quarter of Maine’s confirmed infections, according to the Covid Tracking Project.
Those high rates are partly tied to the fact that people of color work in a number of essential industries that remained open during the pandemic where workers are at higher risk of catching the infection, such as direct health care, manufacturing and meat processing.
“This investment represents our continued commitment to making progress on the unacceptable disparities in COVID-19 in Maine,” said DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew. “In addition to preventing the spread and limiting the impact of the virus, our response must include working in partnership with organizations trusted by the communities they serve and addressing the underlying problems that contribute to this disparity.”
The new funding follows some other efforts by the Mills administration to close those disparities, including expanding COVID-19 testing for people of color and recruiting more case investigation staff who know the languages and cultures of racial and ethnic groups with high numbers of infections.
But the department also acknowledged that the state needs to do more to address racial disparities in coronavirus infections in addition to the socioeconomic factors that have made people of color more vulnerable to the virus. To that end, Maine DHHS is collecting input on how its organizational structure and contracting process can better service communities of color.