Leading maternal health advocacy groups tackle barriers to equitable maternity care for women and families of color

July 14, 2020

Maternal mortality impacts women of color at higher rates. Now, experts worry that the COVID-19 pandemic is making the situation worse.

Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention illustrate that COVID-19 mortality rates in the United States are substantially higher among Black, Native American and Latinx women. The threat is especially high for Black women who live in rural areas of Southern states. They have less access to health care providers and travel longer distances to receive care, and systemic racism and health care inequities put their lives at risk long before the pandemic arrived.

As the novel coronavirus continues to spread around the globe, pregnant women of color have expressed concern about how they can safely obtain prenatal care and deliver their babies when nearly all prenatal care historically has been rendered in-person.

Representatives of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), the National Birth Equity Collaborative, the Georgia Health Policy CenterR.A.C.E. for Equity, Reaching Our Sisters Everywhere, the National Perinatal Association, the Morehouse School of Medicine and National Area Health Education Centers Organization will address these disparities, support providers and families, and boost access to telehealth and distant care services for maternal health with a one-time award of up to $4 million through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act of 2020, awarded by the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration.

This COVID-focused initiative comes at a time when the U.S. is already facing a long-standing public health crisis of significantly higher maternal mortality and morbidity rates for African American and Latinx women. The global health pandemic is forcing a close examination of the weaknesses of traditional maternity care systems, and the initiative will support communities and provide evidence-based interventions while enacting innovative approaches to address the barriers that exist around equitable maternity care for women and families of color.

Dorothy Cilenti, DrPH, is an associate professor in the Department of Maternal and Child Health at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. Cilenti and Sarah Verbiest, DrPH, director of the Jordan Institute for Families in the UNC School of Social Work and an adjunct faculty member at the Gillings School, will lead the project with a focus on centering equity and enhancing remote care. Under their guidance, UNC will collaborate with seven partner organizations to advance other federal and state-level efforts to eliminate preventable maternal deaths and reduce severe maternal morbidity.

“We are pleased to work in partnership to address racial disparities in maternal outcomes and the maternal mortality crisis currently taking place during COVID-19,” said Joia Crear-Perry, MD, FACOG, founder and president of the National Birth Equity Collaborative. “We know that this pandemic exacerbates racial inequities and that the three main root causes of inequities are racism, classism and gender oppression. Black women in the United States, despite income or education, are still more likely to die in childbirth than their white counterparts. It is my hope that, through this partnership, we are able to use this pivotal moment to address these inequities.”

“COVID-19 has stirred conversation and more awareness surrounding the disparities plaguing our country and has pushed organizations to seek alternative methods to caring for communities,” said Kimarie Bugg, DNP, FNP-BC, MPH, IBCLC, CLC, CEO of Reaching Our Sisters Everywhere. “Telehealth offers an opportunity to reach and serve mothers who need care most — in their own homes. We are excited for the opportunity to advance and innovate maternal health care.”

Learn more about this initiative at MaternalHealthLearning.org.

About the National Birth Equity Collaborative: The National Birth Equity Collaborative creates solutions that optimize Black maternal and infant health through training, policy advocacy, research and community-centered collaboration. For additional information, visit birthequity.org.

About the Initiative: The project is led by Dorothy Cilenti, DrPH, director of the National Maternal and Child Health Workforce Development Center, and Sarah Verbiest, DrPH, executive director of the Center for Maternal & Infant Health in the UNC School of Medicine. Learn more about Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act of 2020 funding (PDF).

This project is supported by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) under grant number H7EMC37564 Supporting Providers and Families to Access Telehealth and Distant Care Services for Maternal Health. This information or content and conclusions are those of the author and should not be construed as the official position or policy of, nor should any endorsements be inferred by HRSA, HHS or the U.S. government.

Contact the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health communications team at sphcomm@unc.edu.

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