Minority, Rural Groups Ask Trump Administration For More Grants To Address Coronavirus Crisis

A letter from a broad coalition of groups to Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar asked Monday for increased funding measures to address disparities in how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting minority and rural communities, as well as seniors and other vulnerable groups.

The letter was in reference to the department's Office of Minority Health grant opportunity offering a $10 million to $24 million grant to create a "national infrastructure for mitigating the impact of COVID-19 within racial and ethnic minority communities."

The unusually broad coalition that signed onto the letter includes groups ranging from those focused on aging and diabetes, to rural and faith groups, along with Latino and black organizations.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows African-Americans have higher rates of infection than whites, while data from New York City and Los Angeles has showed high infection and death rates among blacks and Latinos. In Chicago, the third-largest city in the country, Latinos account for 40 percent of cases, and African Americans are 50 percent of the death toll, despite being less than one-third of the population.

The problem, the groups say, is that one grant alone can not hope to address the disproportionate effect of the coronavirus outbreak on such varied communities. They also said they were frustrated to see that the grant opportunity was posted May 1 and already filled by May 11, suggesting to them that there was already an organization in mind for the federal grant.

"There's no one size fits all solution for these unprecedented times and consequently there should be no one organization tasked with accurately assessing the significant impacts COVID-19 has had on the minority, rural and underserved communities," Kevin Kimble, member of the Health Equity Collaborative and Washington bureau chief of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, told Newsweek.

"When you hear there is a grant available but it's a large amount to one group, how can you have a really competitive process?" asked Justin Velez-Hagan, executive director of the National Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce. He also told Newsweek an experimental process featuring multiple groups would be ideal to see which group's ideas are working. "It just doesn't seem thought through," he added, frustrated.

The groups' letter also asked for the department to collect "comprehensive, demographic data on race, ethnicity, gender, language, disability, and socioeconomic status of patients being tested for COVID-19, the rate of positive test results, and outcomes for those with COVID-19."

In a statement to Newsweek, HHS said it recognizes the urgency of addressing the pandemic, especially in communities hardest hit by COVID-19 and extended the deadline to May 13 at 11:59 pm because of technical difficulties with Grants.gov on Monday when the website was inaccessible to the public during the window when applications were due.

It said the funding opportunity was created in "record time" and the agency knew of "numerous entities" that would be eligible to apply, with HHS spreading the word far and wide in its press release and social media handles.

HHS also told Newsweek the initiative is meant to build a national network to support a "strategic, coordinated information dissemination effort" that will reach and involve racial and ethnic minority communities throughout the country. "To ensure that we reach all states, territories, and tribes with consistent messaging and culturally and linguistically diverse information, we envision one national entity to coordinate efforts with state/territorial/tribal/local partners throughout the country," the statement concluded.

Still, HHS has a history of making multiple grants available for millions of dollars on initiatives it prioritizes. Newsweek found that on May 1 it also made eight grants available for HIV/AIDS research totaling up to $10 million, as well as 18 grants from the Office of Minority Health totaling more than $6.7 million to get kids involved in sports.

One current initiative related to the fallout from the crisis is one to "Build Capacity for National Public Health Institutes," which includes 15 expected awards for $150 million, but those who signed onto the letter say vulnerable communities are not in their own silos — they're all Americans who contribute to community health.

"From communities of color to individuals living with dementia and disabilities, the impact of COVID-19 on vulnerable Americans is far reaching," Jason Resendez, an organizer of the letter and executive director of the LatinosAgainstAlzheimer's Coalition convened by UsAgainstAlzheimer's, told Newsweek.

"This reality deserves deeper action from HHS, including multiple funding opportunities for community-based organizations to help mitigate the devastation triggered by COVID19," he said. "One grant just won't do it."

UPDATE: May 12, 2:36 p.m. ET: This story has been updated to add comment from HHS.

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Jose Vatres comforts his son Aidin as nurse practitioner Alexander Panis (L) passes to his assitant Aidin's nasal swab sample to test for COVID-19 at a mobile testing station in a public school parking area in Compton, California, just south of Los Angeles, on April 28, 2020. ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images/Getty