Lessons from Chicago’s COVID-19 Racial Equity Rapid Response Team

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has tasked a rapid response team with combating racial and ethnic disparities in COVID-19’s impact in her city. (AP Photos)

The numbers told a disturbing story from the very beginning of the coronavirus outbreak in Chicago. Of the first 100 Chicagoans to die from COVID-19, 75 were African-American.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot and her team decided that disproportionate impact needed an immediate response. So they created the city’s Racial Equity Rapid Response Team, one of the nation’s first initiatives dedicated to mitigating the devastating toll the pandemic has caused in communities of color. City leaders across the country have been watching the effort closely as they move to address racial and ethnic disparities with COVID-19 in their own communities.

Lightfoot told CBS This Morning last week that it was important for her to create such a task force because of her personal connection to the community. “When I first saw those numbers about how black Chicago was being disproportionately impacted, my first reaction was to think about my 91-year-old mother,” Lightfoot said. “To think about my siblings who are all over 60, some of whom have these underlying conditions. It felt very personal to me.”

Candace Moore, the city’s first Chief Equity Officer, told Bloomberg Cities that the mayor’s charge to her was to “be transparent and own this moment with the community and get this information out there, but that we also had the responsibility to do something.” Moore added: “Even as we understood that these numbers were heavily impacted by institutional inequalities that existed long before this pandemic, there had to be something meaningful we could do right now.”

That “something” was to create a public-private partnership with community groups that had already been providing healthcare supports, mentoring services, and community organizing. Moore said the partnership began with the realization that “our overall public-health approach and strategy was not going as far and as deep as it needed to go. And to do that, it would require us to get into partnership with organizations who were on the ground in those areas to listen, learn, and respond much faster and more intensively.”

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The goals of the response team have been to “flatten the mortality curve in black and brown communities and create the infrastructure from which we can build future work,” Moore said. “This can’t be a one-and-done — we need to lay the track for future work.”

The initiative has focused so far on three areas where local COVID-19 data indicated a need for action — Austin, Auburn Gresham, and South Shore — though it has broadened to a more regional approach in recent weeks to include hard-hit Hispanic neighborhoods as well. Moore said the work is organized around four central themes:

For other cities considering launching a similar equity response effort, Moore offered three topline lessons learned:

Other cities that are exploring the use of similar racial equity task forces include:

[Read: Augusta, Ga., Mayor Hardie Davis on 4 things mayors can do to address COVID-19 racial disparities]

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