Olmsted County commissioners are looking to tackle racism as a public health issue.

The board on Tuesday unanimously approved a measure officially asking members of the county’s Public Health Services Advisory Board and Human Rights Commission to work together to investigate racism and disparities in health care.

“This has been talked about around the nation,” County Administrator Heidi Welsch said in introducing the effort to commissioners.

According to a 2018 report published by The Commonwealth Fund, members of racial and ethnic minorities are less likely to receive preventive health services, and they often see lower quality in their care.

“They also have worse health outcomes for certain conditions,” states the report by Martha Hostetter and Sarah Klein. “To combat these disparities, advocates say health care professionals must explicitly acknowledge that race and racism factor into health care.”

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The resolution approved by county commissioners acknowledges that the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted health care disparities.

In Olmsted County, 35.1% of confirmed COVID-19 cases have been seen in Black residents, even though Black residents make up 6.9% of the population, based on 2019 census estimates.

Additionally, a recent community survey found 31.3% of the county’s white residents reported facing financial stress while 53.9% of non-white residents said they are financially stressed.

Welsch said she expects work on the joint investigation on racism and health care disparities will start with an initial meeting of members of the two groups sometime this month.

The Public Health Services Advisory Board’s next meeting is 5:30 p.m. Thursday in the Whitewater/Cascade Conference Room of 2100 Campus Drive SE. A joint effort is on the agenda. Members are also expected to participate through online means.

The Human Rights Commission’s next meeting is set for 7 p.m. Aug. 20.

The Human Rights Commission recently lost several members through resignations, but Olmsted County commissioners appointed two new members — Payton Koehler and Donna Lun — on Tuesday.

Julian Currie, the county’s human resource director, said four to five more volunteer members remain to be named to the Human Rights Commission as work on the new effort starts.

Lun told county commissioners Tuesday the work to address racial disparities in health care was one of the reasons she sought a position on the Human Rights Commission.

Welsch said the combined efforts will seek to draw on a variety of community resources, including local experts on the issue through Mayo Clinic and other sources, but no official timeline has been established.

“I’m sure this will be a many-month project,” she said.