MONTPELIER — The state will soon be appointing members of a racial equity task force to address racial disparities in coronavirus infection and death rates, Gov. Phil Scott announced during a press conference on Monday.
"And it won't be the only lens we look at health disparities for different racial groups in Vermont," said Xusana Davis, the state's director of racial equity.
Davis said the task force will look at health care, housing, education, employment and other issues. The group also is anticipated to review hate speech laws and encourage people from all racial groups to run to serve in public office. Appointments to the task force are anticipated to be made next week.
Mark Levine, commissioner of health, said national data for COVID-19 cases shows infection rates for African Americans are nearly "two times greater than what would be expected by their share of the population."
"For hospitalizations, 33 percent of those hospitalized are African Americans but only 13 percent of the U.S. population is," he said. "When we look at our cases in Vermont ... African Americans have a rate that's almost twice that of the white population."
Levine told reporters that disparities nationally have been linked to discrimination to health care and wealth, an increase in exposure to the virus due to a disproportionate representation in essential frontline jobs, and a greater reliance on mass transportation in major metropolitan areas. He also said African Americans are known to experience higher rates of underlying health issues and live in areas with higher rates of poverty.
The governor's announcement came after his call for the prosecution of four police officers involved in the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Protests this weekend in Brattleboro, Burlington and Montpelier joined others around the United States in condemning police brutality.
Scott called the nation-wide outrage "justified." He said the officers should be charged with and tried for murder.
Levine noted that COVID-19 data still reflects Vermont is seeing a very low number of cases in recent days and reopening plans remain on track. He expressed concerns about the size of gatherings at protests and lack of physical distancing.
Plans were unveiled to address about 2,000 appointments that were canceled since Department of Motor Vehicles locations were closed in March. During a two-hour training Thursday, certified instructors will receive training to become agents of the department who will be able to administer road tests for operator and junior operator licenses.
Wanda Minoli, commissioner of motor vehicles, said she feels confident the "partnership" will help address the backlog.
Learner's permit tests can now be taken online and driver's license exams will resume June 8. Rescheduling canceled appointments would be "the first priority," Minoli said.
The department is looking to set up new exams starting Wednesday. They will all be by appointment only.
Those involved in the exams will be required to wear face coverings. Customers are asked not to bring guests unless they are a guardian or translator and essential to the process.
"We really do look forward to seeing new drivers on the road," Minoli said.
Reach staff writer Chris Mays at email@example.com and at @CMaysBR on Twitter.