This is an open letter to Gov. Roy Cooper.

Congratulations to Gov. Roy Cooper for his leadership and initiative to address the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color. Thank you for naming the task force in honor of our belated and beloved dear friend Andrea Harris. She dedicated her life to economic equality, justice, and serving disadvantaged communities.

You are the first governor in the United States to establish a task force to address these disproportionate impacts. Again, congratulations! Hopefully, the task force services and recommendations will extend beyond the tenure of the current pandemic and will include the poor as part of its focus. The systemic health disparities need serious and continuous attention in North Carolina.

The current coronavirus pandemic has clearly shown these existing health disparities across North Carolina and the country, and this new data reveal the disproportionate rates of COVID-19 illness and death among blacks, Latinos and the poor. One thing is abundantly clear — the virus is taking a higher toll on disadvantaged North Carolina, who were already at enormous risk of having the security of work, income and health.

The data on racial disparities are even more eye-opening: COVID-19 is affecting and killing black and Latino North Carolinians at a rate greatly exceeding their percentage of the population. Our state’s data are changing as we move into rural communities.

Lack of access to quality health care among minorities and the poor populations is the big culprit. Beyond responding to the disparities of the current pandemic, we must commit ourselves to affordable health care for all. A significant healthy step forward for North Carolina would be to expand Medicaid.

The employment status of minorities and the poor add to their vulnerability. In North Carolina, many of the essential workers are people of color and low income, the same individuals who are disproportionately affected by COVID-19. White-collar workers, who have the privilege to work from home, have a significantly lower risk of exposure and infection. Please give explicit and safe instructions as the retailers, small businesses, food processors, and mom-pop stores return to work.

Adding to the severity of the communities facing disproportionate rates of COVID-19 illness and death are those already struggling financially and will be the hardest hit during the potential recession. Helping many of these struggling small businesses on Main Street and in our rural communities will add to the economy of our state.

Now more than ever, health care coverage must be expanded to reach as many citizens as possible. Health coverage is critical because anyone can get sick from COVID-19, and many of those more likely to get affected and die are uninsured. North Carolina and local health departments must continue to provide community health information.

We have a significant opportunity to learn from this pandemic and to address long-standing disparities among our minority citizens and the poor. By doing so, we can finally move in the direction of health equity in our state.

Eva Clayton is a former U.S. congresswoman who resides in Warren County.