As widespread data and reporting has highlighted how national environmental health disparities have contributed to the deeply disproportional character of this pandemic, Vermont is only beginning its work to connect the dots and understand which communities experience greater environmental health risks. The topics that have arisen most frequently and with greatest emotion in our research and engagement are housing habitability, adequate transportation to meet basic needs, better digital and lingual access to required services, and disaster relief and resiliency. To underscore the concern about disaster relief and resiliency, we have documented lingering, unresolved trauma from Hurricane Irene, including socio-economic setbacks that continue to impact Vermonters’ lives.
Prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Vermont institutions have been engaged in a critical, largely unprecedented dialogue about how to understand and center the experiences of those currently at the margins. As COVID-19 emerged as a global health and economic crisis, these same Vermont entities have largely focused on generalized life-saving and stopgap measures. From our observations and preliminary findings, there are real and perceived lags in the creation of equitable information, tools, and resources for digitally underserved, low-income, limited English proficiency (LEP), and other marginalized communities. This was evidenced in the rapid response to build relationships, stand up testing sites, and provide urgent information in other languages following a surge in infections among New American communities.
While national data highlights stark racial disparities in testing, access to treatment for infection, and mortality from COVID-19, Vermont was delayed in tracking racial information in its pandemic response. Interpreting and translating vital health and economic information was largely left to municipal, non-profit, and community-based organizations for the first wave of the pandemic, as well. What we know, as of this publication’s release, is that Black Vermonters are 7.5 times more likely to be infected with COVID-19 than White Vermonters. Black Vermonters make up 1.5 percent of the Vermont population and 11.2 percent of the positive cases. These numbers are likely to look even more staggering and disproportionate with the addition of cases from the outbreak among Jamaican guest workers at Champlain Orchards in early October.
To conduct our assessment, REJOICE engaged relevant community leaders or liaisons (sometimes referred to as cultural brokers in New American settings) and compensated them to co-design and co-facilitate focus group conversations. If an interpreter was required, we also compensated them and included them in the design process. The focus group discussions were conducted via group Zoom calls that allowed individual participants to call in from a phone or access the conversation digitally. Participants were asked to devote roughly an hour and a half of their time to these focus groups, and were compensated $50 each. Compensation was delivered as quickly and safely as possible, with the help of the community liaisons. During our calls, we provided a brief overview of the project, as well as vital targeted health and economic resource information, as available and agreed upon with the community liaison, to avoid redundancy. We then worked with our liaisons to ask some or all of the following questions as time allowed:
- What are the challenges to obtaining information and resources about the pandemic, online or otherwise in your own/accessible language?
- What response measures have been helpful? Unhelpful? Where and how is it helpful or unhelpful to access necessary information and resources?
- What are your challenges to accessing shelter in a healthy and safe place?
- What are your challenges to accessing adequate medical care?
- What are your challenges to experiencing health and safety at work, including articulating and addressing concerns with a supervisor?
- What are your challenges to accessing sufficient, nutritious food and necessary supplies?
- How do factors like race, gender, poverty, and ability impact your situation?
- What are you most worried about right now?
- If you could ask the government to change one thing in the pandemic response, what would it be?
Our research was conducted under the approval of the University of Vermont Institutional Review Board (IRB) for human subjects research. All participants’ personal identifiable information was kept confidential and all participants were given the opportunity at the beginning of each focus group to orally consent to being interviewed and recorded for the purposes of this research.
Special recognition and gratitude to former CWC Fellow, now Senator, Kesha Ram-Hinsdale for her leadership on the Community Core of REJOICE from 2019-2020.
We are indebted to the following organizations for their assistance in connecting with members of the communities they represent and serve:
Association of Africans Living in Vermont
Brain Injury Association of Vermont
Newport Wireless Mesh
Rutland Area NAACP
Vermont Center for Independent Living
We are grateful to the following funding partners for their support and cooperation in this work:
Anne Slade Frey Charitable Trust
Harris & Frances Block Foundation
High Meadows Fund
Vermont Community Foundation
Vermont Department of Health
And private donors