Mufalo Chitam, executive director of the Maine Immigrants' Rights Coalition, is pictured outside the Portland Expo in this 2019 file photo. She was among several Black and immigrant leaders who called on Gov. Janet Mills to do more to address coronavirus racial disparities on Thursday. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Black and immigrant leaders called on Gov. Janet Mills to do more to address the disproportionate effects of coronavirus on people of color in Maine on Thursday, saying the state should partner with organizations that know how to address the needs of their communities.

Maine has the largest racial disparities of any state, with Black and African American residents about 24 times more likely to have tested positive for the virus than their white counterparts. The disparities stem in part from the overrepresentation of Black and immigrant Mainers in front-line professions and crowded living conditions in immigrant communities that make household transmission of the virus more likely.

At a news conference conducted over Zoom, several immigrant Mainers shared their experiences with the virus, while local officials and other leaders said the state needs to better support organizations that already have trust and connections in their communities.

Ines Mushiga of Lewiston said her husband, an essential worker, tested positive for the virus two weeks ago. Shortly thereafter, her 18-month-old son also tested positive.

Mushiga, an immigrant from Burundi who works as an advocate for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence, said the experience scared her and her children, including her 6-year-old daughter who does not understand why she cannot go outside and play.

“Sadly, this is a story of multiple immigrant families who have to risk their lives every day to provide basic services to the global Maine community sometimes with little pay and little to no medical care provided,” Mushiga said.

Bright Lukusa of Lewiston works at the Immigrant Resource Center of Maine and as a home health care professional. She was first exposed to the coronavirus in April, but struggled at the time to get a test because she did not have symptoms. She was exposed again recently and is currently awaiting test results.

“I live with my mother and she has pre-existing conditions that would make it very difficult if I were to bring the coronavirus back home and expose it to her,” Lukusa said, “and I just feel like I am not a priority to anybody.”

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention has been holding calls with immigrant leaders for months. But several community leaders said Thursday that the agency’s top-down approach often did not address their concerns or came up with solutions that still left holes.

For example, the agency has worked to address the racial disparity by expanding testing in immigrant communities and adding quarantining in hotels as an option for people who test positive. But the latter option has not gone smoothly, said Mufalo Chitam, executive director of the Maine Immigrant Rights’ Coalition, because there was little support for infected people.

Some people who were quarantined did not have access to a place to cook, for example, or had qualms about isolating in a hotel because they did not have access to child care.

When people who are quarantined in hotels lack other options, immigrant community organizations are “forced to improvise,” said John Ochira, chair of the South Sudanese Community Association. He said the Maine CDC should prioritize working with the community organizations first, so there would be fewer gaps that need to be addressed.

Jackie Farwell, spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services, said Thursday that the racial disparities in case counts were “unacceptable,” noting that the department outlined the steps it is taking to address the issue earlier this week.

Rep. Rachel Talbot-Ross, D-Portland, one of two Black members of the Maine Legislature, said funding from the $1.25 billion the state received through a federal coronavirus relief package could help build partnerships between community organizations and the state. A legislative panel, which Talbot-Ross chairs, made a similar recommendation last week.

“There is the very urgent need to get money directly to these communities, but there is the very urgent need to use those funds to build up those infrastructures desperately needed in communities that currently have none due to systemic racism,” Talbot-Ross said.

Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Windham, also called on Mills to declare racism a public health emergency. Several states have declared such an emergency in recent months, including Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin, according to Pew Research.

A spokesperson for Mills declined to directly answer questions Thursday about declaring racism a public health emergency or allocating federal stimulus money, instead directing questions to Farwell, who said in an email that the state was working to ensure equal access to health care, including by “deepening our work with community leaders and advocates.”

“We are committed to making progress on these issues and continuing a constructive dialogue,” she said.