Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew takes a question at a news conference in the State House, Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019, in Augusta. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

The BDN is making the most crucial coverage of the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact in Maine free for all readers. Click here for all coronavirus stories. You can join others committed to safeguarding this vital public service by purchasing a subscription or donating directly to the newsroom.

Gov. Janet Mills’ administration said Thursday it is investing $1 million from its coronavirus relief fund to address the racial and ethnic disparities that have left people of color disproportionately exposed to the pandemic in a predominantly white state.

The funds will go directly to organizations that are run by people in those hard-hit communities, and it will expand a number of education and prevention efforts while increasing the eligibility for some coronavirus-related services, according to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. 

The announcement comes as Black people in Maine have been infected with the virus disproportionately, at one of the highest rates in the country. Even though they make up just 1 percent of the state’s population, they have accounted for a quarter of Maine’s confirmed infections, according to the Covid Tracking Project

Those high rates are partly tied to the fact that people of color work in a number of essential industries that remained open during the pandemic and where workers are at higher risk of catching the infection, such as direct health care, manufacturing and meat processing. Another contributing factor may be that many immigrant families live in cramped, multifamily properties where physical distancing is difficult. 

People from immigrant communities have also said that language and cultural barriers, as well as a lack of trust, have prevented some of their members from accessing testing and services during the pandemic. 

“It’s disheartening and, I think, unacceptable that we’re seeing and confronting a number of significant racial disparities, and what this pandemic has laid bare about some of the inequities and racism in our society,” Mills said during a news conference on Thursday. “These issues deserve our attention both in the short run and the long run.”

Mills said that the new funding could help pay for food, lodging and child care for people of color who need to isolate themselves from others because they’ve been infected with the virus. It could also help facilitate more testing in those communities or identify other unmet needs. 

Maine DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said that the emphasis of the new funding will be on supporting organizations that are already serving communities from different racial and ethnic backgrounds, including new Mainers and African-American, Latinx and Asian-American residents.

“The different part of what we’re doing today is really working in partnerships,” Lambrew said. “What we have heard loud and clear is that the community members can identify these needs. They can provide these services, and we want to take down barriers and make sure we’re supporting them in doing so.”

The new funding follows some other efforts by the Mills administration to close those disparities, including expanding COVID-19 testing for people of color and recruiting more case investigation staff who know the languages and cultures of racial and ethnic groups with high numbers of infections.

But the department also acknowledged that the state needs to do more to address racial disparities in coronavirus infections in addition to the socioeconomic factors that have made people of color more vulnerable to the virus. To that end, Maine DHHS is collecting input on how its organizational structure and contracting process can better service communities of color.