Research increasingly shows that communities of color are disproportionately affected by COVID-19 in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Black individuals are almost 3x more likely to be hospitalized and almost 2x more likely to die from COVID-19 than White individuals. These numbers are slightly worse for Latino, American Indian and Alaska Natives, who are over 3x more likely to be hospitalized and over 2x more likely to die from COVID-19 compared to White populations.1
Non-White individuals face a long history of health, economic, housing and environmental realities that make it difficult to access quality health care. COVID-19 has highlighted the vast social determinants of health that acutely affect communities of color. Racism may also play a role in health and social factors that increase a person’s risk of experiencing severe illness or death from COVID-19.
As part of UnitedHealth Group's STOP COVID initiative, we used health plan data to identify communities in Washington, DC hit hardest by the virus. Not surprisingly, these were all communities of color. We then established a community-based coalition that included faith-based leaders and local organizations to bring COVID-19 testing resources directly into trusted spaces in the community.
Working with community organizations
Our STOP COVID initiative focused on bringing testing, education, resources and now vaccinations directly to the most impacted communities in Washington, DC. We did this in partnership with trusted community and faith-based partners, including the following local organizations.
- Leadership Council for Healthy Communities (LCHC) promotes health equity in underserved communities and served as our point of contact on the frontline. Through LCHC’s relationships, we were able to connect to faith-based institutions across the District, helping us locate a site partner in a high-risk district.
- FiveMedicine, a Black-owned health company that focuses on health equity, provided staff to conduct testing.
- Mary’s Center, a local federally qualified health center (FQHC), administered and oversaw COVID-19 testing and vaccinations at each of our sites. Mary’s Center stored vaccine supplies and worked to make sure that every person tested received timely results to help keep the virus from spreading. They also provided HIV testing and health education across our sites to help improve the health of the community.
- Capitol Area Food Bank provided food and organized distribution efforts.
- Changing Perceptions, which focuses on employment for individuals re-entering the workforce following incarceration, helped pass out and deliver food boxes and safety kits.
- Pennsylvania Avenue Baptist Church, under the leadership of Rev. Dr. Kendrick Curry, is a constant beacon of hope for the community. The church provided the location for COVID-19 testing and was the site of the first Faith in Vaccine initiative, which has now expanded to eight churches across the District. The Pennsylvania Avenue Baptist Church is a staple in the community and is known for gathering resources for its members and the surrounding community.
With help from these organizations, we have provided the following to community members since January 2021:
- 1,482 COVID tests
- 4,079 health kits, which included personal protective equipment (PPE), hand sanitizer, face masks and personal paper products
- 722 food boxes
- 65 HIV tests
Expanding the model
LCHC, Mary’s Center, UnitedHealthcare and FiveMedicine have since partnered with the District of Columbia’s Faith in Vaccine pilot under DC Health guidance. Church volunteers and community partners are responsible for reaching out to community members and congregants. This pilot, targeting residents 65 years of age and older, has provided more than 2,900 vaccinations at Black churches in the District to date. Because of the success of this pilot, the District has expanded the model to additional churches in communities hit hardest by the pandemic.
Rethinking health care delivery
While there is no simple solution, we are committed to rethinking how health care is delivered in underserved communities. Working with local organizations has given us unique insights into these communities and allowed us to forge new partnerships with local leaders. Through these efforts, we are working to build the community's trust in our health plan and in the health care system.
We believe that it is important to address racial disparities by investing in neighborhoods where the people we serve live and work. By working collaboratively with local partners, we are better equipped to roll out programs that meet the unique needs of the communities and begin to address health equity. The STOP COVID initiative in DC is just one way we are partnering with local organizations to make the health system work better for everyone.