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Hoyer, Brown Write Letter to Governor Hogan Laying Out Urgent Priorities to Address Alarming Racial Disparities in COVID-19 Outbreak

WASHINGTON, DC - Congressman Steny H. Hoyer (MD-05) and Congressman Anthony G. Brown (MD-04) wrote a letter to Maryland Governor Larry Hogan laying out urgent priorities to address racial disparities exacerbated by the novel coronavirus pandemic. The lawmakers highlight the need for additional resources for testing, hospital surge capacity, public health education, and data collection in Prince George’s County. They also urge Governor Hogan to develop plans to address long-standing health care disparities in communities of color.   

As of Tuesday, 5,322 – or 37% -- of the confirmed 14,193 cases in Maryland are African Americans. African American Marylanders account for 218 of Maryland’s 584 deaths. Prince George’s County, a majority-minority community represented by both Hoyer and Brown, has become the epicenter for the coronavirus outbreak in Maryland. While Prince George’s population of 900,000 represents less than 15% of total Marylanders, the cases in Prince George’s account for more than 26% of state-wide confirmed cases and 30% of hospitalizations. 

Recent reporting has illustrated in stark detail the growing health disparities along racial lines nationally during the novel coronavirus pandemic. The United States still does not have reliable demographic data on tests, hospitalizations, and deaths. On Friday, the CDC released new data that lists the race and ethnicity of 75 percent of all cases as unspecified. Meanwhile, communities of color continue to distrust the Trump Administration’s public health guidance, which has lacked meaningful outreach to minority populations.

“These high rates of infection and death are taking their toll on the hospitals, providers, and health care workers in Prince George’s County,” wrote Congressmen Hoyer and Brown. “The coronavirus has exposed the existing health disparities in our communities, which have been exacerbated by decades’ old policies on education, childcare, employment, criminal justice, community and economic revitalization, housing, transportation, and land use. We must act now to ensure these disparities do not cost more lives during this pandemic, and we must work to close these gaps moving forward.”

Read the full letter below.

April 21, 2020 

Dear Governor Hogan: 

          Thank you for your leadership during this public health crisis. Your urgent action in response to the outbreak of the coronavirus has helped mitigate the spread and transmission of this deadly virus. Additionally, we appreciate your decision to direct the Maryland Department of Health to provide further demographic breakdowns of COVID-19 data, including rates of cases and mortality. We must also get an accurate assessment of coronavirus testing data from both public and private labs. 

          The most recent numbers show that COVID-19 is disproportionately impacting African Americans. As of Tuesday, April 21, 5,322—or 37%—of the confirmed 14,193 cases in Maryland are African Americans. Black Marylanders account for 218 of the 584 deaths in the State. Unfortunately, these health disparities are not surprising. Black Americans are at a higher risk of exposure to this virus through frontline jobs without telework options. Additionally, people of color are more likely to be uninsured and have a higher risk of asthma, heart disease, diabetes, and hypertension. Decades of implicit racial bias in our health care system, from diagnosis to treatment, have put many Black Americans at a default disadvantage as the nation confronts this pandemic.  

          It is abundantly clear from the data that Prince George’s County has become the epicenter for the coronavirus outbreak in our State. As of today, the Maryland Department of Health reported 111 COVID-19-related deaths and 3,734 confirmed cases of the virus in Prince George’s—more than any other county in Maryland or the District of Columbia. While Prince George’s population of 900,000 represents less than 15% of total Marylanders, the cases in Prince George’s account for more than 26% of state-wide confirmed cases and 30% of hospitalizations across the State. These numbers are all the more alarming should it be the case that the rate and availability of testing is more limited in Prince George’s compared to other jurisdictions as has been the case in other majority-minority communities throughout the nation.  

          These high rates of infection and death are taking their toll on the hospitals, providers, and health care workers in Prince George’s County. A recent briefing by local healthcare systems to the Prince George’s County Council detailed the strain on the county’s main hospitals. Both Prince George’s Hospital Center in Cheverly and MedStar Southern Maryland Hospital Center in Clinton are reportedly sending patients to other hospitals as their own critical care units are filling to maximum capacity. Unfortunately, recent State efforts are insufficient to alleviate the immediate pressures that Prince George’s is currently experiencing: the new testing site at FedEx can only perform about 100 tests per day and Laurel Hospital has not opened yet. More beds, more tents, and more medical resources are needed to effectively respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.  

          Finally, the coronavirus has exposed the existing health disparities in our communities, which have been exacerbated by decades’ old policies on education, childcare, employment, criminal justice, community and economic revitalization, housing, transportation, and land use.  We must act now to ensure these disparities do not cost more lives during this pandemic, and we must work to close these gaps moving forward. To that end, we suggest that our priorities moving forward should be: 

  1. Setting Up Targeted Testing Locations for Prince George’s County: African Americans make up 37% of confirmed cases in Maryland. Because of lack of available testing in our State and nationwide, the number of positive cases for COVID-19 is likely higher. We need to aggressively expand our testing capacity, target resources to “hotspot” areas in our State, and reduce barriers needed for individuals to receive a test. We are ready to work with the state on bringing additional testing capacity to Maryland.
  2. Prioritizing Surge Capacity Investments in Prince George's: Additional beds, staff, and supplies are needed in the area that is experiencing the most infections and deaths. 
  3. Additional Public Health Education: In the absence of a vaccine, social distancing measures and hand hygiene are our best defense against this virus. Maryland, along with the federal government, have made exceptional efforts to educate the public on individual roles and responsibilities in protecting our most vulnerable. However, more can be done to reach marginalized communities of color, including more targeted outreach through minority-owned media and social media. 
  4. Developing Plans to Address Long-Term Racial Health Disparities: The health disparities highlighted during this coronavirus pandemic existed long before COVID-19 and will persist without action. We must begin long-term solutions and programs to address these long-standing health and social inequities in our State, including access to healthy food providers. 
  5. Enhancing Data on State’s Response in Prince George's: As the epicenter of the outbreak in Maryland, data on the funding flowing to Prince George’s County, deployment of additional personnel, comparison of testing rates, and hospital utilization will help determine if sufficient resources are being marshalled.  

          We look forward to working with you to ensure our communities receive the attention and resources necessary to care for the sick and limit the spread of this virus. We can further “flatten the curve” and bolster our State’s medical capacity if we act with urgency, as you have personally demonstrated, to remedy these health disparities and ensure everyone is able to get the care they need. 

Sincerely,