In this May 25, 2020, file photo, a lab technician extracts a portion of a COVID-19 vaccine candidate during testing at the Chula Vaccine Research Center, run by Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand. Credit: Sakchai Lalit | AP

PORTLAND, Maine — Coronavirus has infected Black Mainers at more than 10 times the rate of their white counterparts — a racial disparity that’s more pronounced here than anywhere in the U.S.

But now state officials are researching ways to disaggregate health data among racial subpopulations, acknowledging various health outcomes between persons of color which had previously been grouped together for data purposes.

“We do not know what proportion of the more than 25 percent of positive tests for COVID-19 are Black immigrants and what proportion are indigenous Black Americans,” Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, said during a panel with officials from the state Department of Health and Human Services this week.

He argued there are important epidemiological and sociological distinctions between Black Americans, African immigrants and Afro-Caribbean immigrants and the country “must do more to protect the lives of Black people.”

The data could help them devise specific efforts to address the persistent higher rate of disease prevalence among Black and other minority demographics in the state, and even shape the state’s response to the coronavirus.

Hickman, who is Black, cited a clinical study released in February that found some risk factors for disease were generally lower in African immigrants than African Americans, though both populations are highly heterogeneous. The study recommended that data on Blacks in the United States should be “disaggregated by ethnicity and country of origin to inform public health strategies to reduce health disparities.”

DHHS is reviewing how to better capture and report demographic data on race and ethnicity, spokesperson Jackie Farwell said. But one challenge is how to do it “without compromising privacy [which] increases when studying larger populations, such as those participating in health coverage and public assistance programs statewide,” she said.

Black or African American Mainers comprise 1.4 percent of the state’s population, but account for nearly a quarter of total positive COVID-19 tests where ethnicity is known — according to CDC data.

Other nonwhite races also face coronavirus disparities. Asians represent 1.2 percent of the population, but 2.6 percent of total cases. Mainers who identify as Hispanic or Latinx comprise 1.7 percent of the population, but 4.2 percent of cases where race is known.

Other state agencies already disaggregate racial data to better enact their missions. The Ending Hunger in Maine by 2030 project, part of the state’s Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, distinguishes between foreign-born and generational Black Mainers in its food security statistics.

Leana Amaez, the director of diversity, equity and inclusion at DHHS, said that “COVID did not create these disparities,” but revealed existing racial inequities that leave some communities of Mainers more vulnerable to infectious disease than others.

“The department is committed to working with community based organizations and community leaders to address these issues,” Amaez said. “We understand that may mean we need to examine how we do what we do and where we have created — maybe not willingly — but where we have created barriers to resources, and to support.”

On Tuesday, the state Center for Disease Control and Prevention announced it would partner with community organizations to promote health equity in its coronavirus response, intending to support “culturally-tailored COVID-19 prevention, education and social support activities” in the state. Using money from Gov. Mills’ coronavirus relief fund, the agency is soliciting applications from organizations in an effort to enlist more cultural brokers to help communities fight the disease.

A senior adviser to the CDC’s health policy, Lisa Letourneau, said that the state’s DHHS was “committed to working on” racial disparities and that it requires “a long and complicated set of solutions.”

“We know that these gaps are very likely a manifestation of long standing structural racism and discrimination in this country,” Letourneau said, citing chronic disparities in financial attainment and income gaps, housing, education, the criminal justice system, access to health care services, and “an understandable mistrust of the healthcare and medical system.”