With the coronavirus pandemic national public health emergency officially ending in about two weeks, the Biden administration stresses that it is focusing on ensuring that the Latino community and other underserved populations don’t fall through the cracks and have the same access to vaccines and other services.

The pandemic that has disproportionately affected the nation’s communities of color, including Latinos. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra commented on how the Biden administration will continue to ensure accessibility to tests, treatments, and vaccines after the COVID emergency declaration is lifted in May.

“There isn’t a human being in this country that has paid a penny for that vaccine,” said Becerra during a White House forum with members of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, adding that the Biden administration will work with community health clinics to provide vaccines and other services to the uninsured and low-income communities.

HHS Deputy Chief of Staff Angela Ramírez said President Biden and Secretary Becerra support the Latino community.

“They (President Biden and Secretary Becerra) see our community and they don’t want our community to just survive, they want us to thrive. Our vision at HHS is to move this country from an illness care system to a wellness system and build a society where equity (and access) is at the center of every decision about healthcare and human services,” said Ramírez said at a recent congressional forum in Washington, D.C., sponsored by Latino Magazine. “More Americans today have access to healthcare than at any point in our country’s history. But there are 26 million Americans with limited English proficiency in our country who face obstacles to accessing health and human services, and consequently are in poor health. Secretary Becerra has made language access and culturally appropriate care a major priority for our department, including a language access steering committee across the department to improve access to government programs.” 

Latino community groups say that’s all fine and dandy, but there are already problems of communication, and even worse, a dearth of Latinos and Latinas in healthcare fields to help the country’s fastest-growing population – there simply aren’t enough with the language and cultural sensitivity skills. 

First, there was the announcement that came much earlier than anyone had anticipated, a month early in fact, that President Biden – under pressure from Republicans – lifted the coronavirus national emergency. Lifting the emergency meant residents in several states would lose the ability to receive free vaccines – already one of the vaccine makers has said it expects the coronavirus vaccine to cost several hundred dollars a dose once the emergency is lifted – and other services which is why the Biden administration has been stressing that they’re working with community groups to ensure the same access then as now. 

Latinos in California are luckier, as Gov. Gavin Newsom added six months to that federal requirement that ends in May and gives Golden State residents until November. But then what? 

One key provision that is disappearing is the continuous enrollment of Medicaid, which means that up to 14 million low-income persons could lose Medicaid coverage. States can apply for waivers, while others, as Secretary Becerra mentioned, are working with the federal government and community groups to make sure no one gets left out.

But herein lies a problem.  Some residents may have moved and haven’t updated their address because they aren’t aware that they need to do so in order to keep their Medicaid coverage past May 11. Others, as Ramírez mentioned, have limited-English proficiency and don’t know who to turn to for help, and there simply aren’t enough Latinos and Latinas in the healthcare fields to help the country’s fastest-growing population in California or any other state for that matter. 

Less than 10% of all healthcare workers in the United States are Latino, and of those, far fewer are doctors, nurses, or other professionals. 

It’s a lack of health equity, says Dr. Elena Ríos, President and CEO and president of the National Hispanic Medical Association, which represents the interests of 50,000 Latino and Latina health professionals. Ríos founded the NHMA in 1994 precisely to help break down barriers and make healthcare more accessible and more equitable.

“The whole disparity issue, the lack of equity, is not a problem with the people, it’s the system that makes it that way. (During COVID) there was a real awareness that we need to do a better job in helping underserved communities. We need more Latinos and Latinas to be doctors and nurses, and dentists, and other health professionals. And it’s not that one group has more than the other, it’s that everybody has the chance to be in the positions of decision-making (in the healthcare field). That’s how we can hope to help change things and have health equity.” 

So what’s next? When the public health emergency officially ends in less than two weeks, some immigration restrictions at the U.S.-Mexico border will also be lifted. The most significant one is Title 42, a Trump-era edict that allows the Biden administration to deport migrants and asylum seekers rapidly without a hearing or any other kind of processing. 

Then-President Trump claimed it was established to stop the spread of coronavirus even while there has never been any evidence whatsoever that virus cases were spreading into the U.S. from its southernmost neighbor. That rule has been used nearly three million times and the White House has been criticized for keeping it around. While Title 42 ends soon, the administration faced even greater criticism when it recently announced stricter policies will be put in place, including a five-year ban on reentry for those caught crossing in the United States illegally. 

Last week, the Biden administration announced it would be setting up regional processing centers in several countries in Latin America to help alleviate what it anticipates will be a “border surge” once Title 42 expires. 
The countries include Guatemala and Colombia, where international organizations partnering with the Biden administration will help process asylum seekers and would be offered safe passage into the United States if they are deemed eligible for an asylum claim. 

Read more stories about COVID here.

Raised in Puerto Rico, Patricia Guadalupe is a bilingual multimedia journalist based in Washington, D.C., covering the capital for both English and Spanish-language media outlets. She is also an adjunct...