Ramsey County’s COVID-19 response includes ensuring racial equity

Submitted photo Sara Hollie

Sara Hollie’s life experience prepared her for a unique role as a public health professional during the pandemic crisis. “My passion started at a young age because I saw the impact of disease and death and what that meant for the Black community,” she explained.

“Growing up, I watched my father, my aunt, my grandparents all be impacted by chronic disease, and some of them have passed away, so at the start of my own life I wanted to be a doctor.”

Watching family members die of chronic illnesses at a young age inspired Hollie to work on eliminating health disparities within the Black community. She was encouraged by one of her college professors to do graduate work in public health, which she did, acquiring a master’s degree in public health administration from the University of Minnesota.

Since graduating she has spent over a decade in public health, previously working at the Minnesota Department of Health before taking on her role at Ramsey County. Now she works as a racial and health equality administrator on Ramsey County’s Health and Wellness Service Team.

After witnessing the impact of COVID-19 on Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC) communities, Hollie and a fellow race and health equity administrator took the initiative to create Ramsey County’ s Racial Equity and Community Engagement Response Team (RECERT).

RECERT was convened in April 2020 to ensure racial equity and community engagement are addressed during the COVID-19 response. It advises the County on the priorities, policies, systems and environmental changes with a charge to advance racial equity throughout the duration of the COVID-19 emergency.

“After looking at data from other states back in March, we saw the rates of COVID really impacting our racially diverse and ethnically diverse communities,” said Hollie. Ramsey County’s COVID-19 dashboard reported 27,756 confirmed cases at the end of Thanksgiving weekend; of that total, 3,819 were Black.

“Our [Black] communities have continued to be impacted by health disparities,” Hollie stated. “What COVID-19 has done in our community is exacerbating those disparities.”

Pexels/MGN Black communities have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic

RECERT was formed to bolster links between the Ramsey County community and the County’s operations, particularly its impact on the BIPOC community. Hollie has been co-leading RECERT since March.

In coordination with RECERT, the County launched the Equity Action Circle (EAC) in May in an effort to help community members address racial disparities. Neither RECERT nor EAC are formal departments, but they report to the County manager. RECERT is tasked with providing weekly work plans that may require partnership with other departments across Ramsey County.

“One of my primary roles is to work with our trusted messengers and community agencies during this time to assure that we are getting resources out to the community with the primary goal of making sure we have accurate and up-to-date information to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” explained Hollie.

“This work is really important because COVID-19 has exacerbated the disparities that already existed. Oftentimes there is misinformation we want to make sure our community is formed by people who look like them who they trust using culturally specific ways. Our cultural community connectors play an important role in making that happen.”

Another step in prevention is repairing the tarnished relationship between the BIPOC community and the health care system. Historically there have been longstanding issues with access to health care and the disparate treatment of individuals based on race.

“We also have to reach the people in our community that are struggling to trust systems because they may have been misinformed or hurt by health care systems or government systems in the past,” said Hollie.

Based on 2018 American Community Survey data, Ramsey County is made up of 40.44% BIPOC community members. Despite making up less than half of the Ramsey County population, BIPOC and race-unknown individuals reportedly make up 52% of the cumulative positives.

“COVID-19 is real and it’s impacting us,” said Hollie. “If I can say anything to our community, it’s please remain vigilant and prevent the spread of this disease.

“Continue to protect yourself during these times. Wear a mask, wash your hands, social distance, stay at home if you can, don’t have social gatherings. I just want to see our communities thrive and survive this pandemic.”