On Wednesday, September 23, the Schroeder Center for Health Policy continued its multidisciplinary speaker series on the COVID-19 pandemic with a virtual talk from Virginia’s Deputy Secretary of Health and Human Resources, Marvin Figueroa. Deputy Secretary Figueroa helps lead the daily operations of the Health and Human Resources Secretariat, including policy development, planning, and intergovernmental relations. He also served as Governor Ralph Northam’s Legislative Director during the 2020 General Assembly Session. Deputy Secretary Figueroa’s talk, “COVID-19's Effects on Virginia and the Role of Public Policy in Addressing These Effects,” was presented over Zoom with Professor Jennifer Mellor, Director of the Schroeder Center and Professor of Economics, acting as moderator.
Deputy Secretary Figueroa began by discussing how much Virginia policymakers have learned in the last six months about the virus itself, how it spreads, and how to keep safe. He then talked about some of the challenges facing policymakers in Virginia related to the COVID-19 pandemic. He explained that testing and contaminant policies regularly have to be changed as new information becomes available and as the coronavirus mutates. He also said that the politicization of the pandemic is making the jobs of policymakers even harder, pointing to a high profile clash between Dr. Anthony Fauci and Senator Rand Paul which had occurred earlier that day.
Deputy Secretary Figueroa then explained how the COVID-19 pandemic can be directly connected to other structural policy problems. Specifically, he described how hospitalizations and deaths are disproportionately high among Black and Latino Virginians, due largely to systemic racism and other underlying socio-economic conditions. For this and other reasons, Secretary Figueroa said that the pandemic has far-reaching implications for how we are organized as a society.
The majority of Deputy Secretary Figueroa’s presentation was dedicated to an informal conversation with William & Mary students from across the College’s academic departments. The questions covered a wide-range of topics, from mental health services to the COVIDWISE app to tips on how to properly social distance while still engaging with the community. One of the most interesting topics covered during the Q&A period was about what the state is doing to ensure that Spanish-speaking communities are receiving reliable information on the pandemic. Deputy Secretary Figueroa cited a number of challenges, including the difficulty of translating and tailoring medical information and developing proper and trusted connections to the community. Nevertheless, the state has contracted with outside vendors for support and is working closely with employers in Spanish-speaking communities to disseminate trustworthy information to one of the Commonwealth’s most vulnerable populations.
Deputy Secretary Figueroa was also asked about how the federal government can help the state government respond to the pandemic. He said the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump in March has been very helpful for alleviating some of the economic effects of the pandemic. However, he also pointed out that the CARES Act funding is set to run out by the end of the year, and the latest scientific data suggests that the pandemic could extend well into 2021.
Deputy Secretary Figueroa also emphasized that the COVID-19 pandemic should not be viewed from a purely economic perspective. Throughout the evening, he reiterated Governor Northam’s message that Virginia policymakers are facing both an economic crisis and a public health crisis, but that the public health crisis must come first.
Near the end of the night, Professor Mellor asked Deputy Secretary Figueroa to talk about his career in public service. Deputy Secretary Figueroa spoke about being born in Honduras and raised in the Bronx, and his experience attending a Title 1 school and being an ESOL student. He said that when he was struggling to keep up with his peers in college from other backgrounds, he decided to do some research into why. That’s when he realized how much of our lives is determined by public policy, and he developed a passion for education and equity.
Deputy Secretary Figueroa ended the night by talking about how important it is for as many people from as many different backgrounds as possible to be a part of the policymaking process.
“The reality is that policy is one trade-off after another, and we need to have individuals who have different vantage points to come to the table and negotiate those trade-offs,” he said. “Absent you being involved, someone is going to make those trade-offs for you.”