NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic the work to remove health disparities that created disproportionate impacts from the virus still continues.

As cases from the omicron variant continue a downward trend, data shows minority communities were again hit the hardest during this most recent wave of COVID-19 cases.

“Where we are now, the white population has a higher rate of cases, however, those deaths and hospitalizations still trend highest amongst our black population,” said Dr. Kimberly Lamar, Assistant Commissioner for the Division of Health Disparities Elimination within the Tennessee Health Department.

Right now Black Tennesseeans account for about 14 percent of the current COVID cases, 17 percent of hospitalizations, and 22 percent of deaths.

“Currently, [Black population] are sitting relative to cases and deaths, about 1.5 times higher than the white population in this state, which is significant,” she said. “Overall, throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen the numbers of cases be highest amongst our Hispanic population, and early on in the pandemic, that was about 1.7, almost two times higher than the rate of Whites.”

Dr. Lamar said the reasons for these disparities were the same as at the beginning of the pandemic. Historically, the higher rates of overall underlying health issues like obesity, heart disease, and hypertension are in communities of color.

“What we are doing now is to continue to address those risk factors because we need to get at the heart of what put these populations at the highest risk in the first place,” Dr. Lamar said. “We can address immediate things like testing and vaccines and all those things, but we need to go back to the root of the problem.”

There’s also been a big push to have equity when it comes to accessing the COVID vaccine. Dr. Lamar says the current vaccination rate is sitting around 40 percent for Black Tennesseans who are eligible, and while they’re proud of their efforts to get to that number, their goal is to reach about 70 percent.

“We did a lot of work pre-vaccines just to encourage communities to give out information, to be transparent with what the research was saying, and so we’re still doing that,” she said, adding that vaccine hesitancy and misinformation are still challenges. “The vaccine’s purpose is reducing the risk of hospitalizations and deaths, which we are being hit the highest amongst our Black community.”

Dr. Lamar said rural Tennessee presented its own challenges during the pandemic as well, and the health department is working to make improvements to those communities. They formally created the Office of Faith-Based and Community Engagement to improve partnerships in rural parts of the state. In doing so, the department is able to hire a number of community health workers to help identify natural leaders to share messages outside the big metro areas.

According to Dr. Lamar, one big lesson from the pandemic has been the need to reach people no matter where they live.

“I think early on in the pandemic, we were putting a whole lot of information on the websites and making it where you have to have internet connections and all kinds of tools to be able to access information from us,” she recalled. “What we have learned is that we have to deploy so many different areas of reaching communities. That means we need to be able to go door to door if we have to, to reach some of those populations that may be very limited in terms of accessing the Internet and other electronics, social media and all those things.”

Dr. Lamar said her office has received $38.8 million from the CDC to help put in interventions that impact their ability to address COVID. They’ll use the money to reduce risk factors in communities of color, rural communities, and other vulnerable populations that are at higher risk for hospitalizations and deaths.

Read more about the TN Health Department’s Our Voices campaign and about health disparities in Tennessee.