ROCHESTER — In 2020, Olmsted County joined cities, counties and even the Minnesota House in condemning racism as a public health crisis.

Now Olmsted County officials are working to address that.

County staff members are beginning to act on a series of recommendations that could improve public health outcomes for residents of color. The 42 recommendations are the result of more than two years' worth of studies and community sessions that culminated in a report issued last fall.

Those recommendations cover the gamut of social issues, from improving homeownership and housing access to better mental health care, more representation on advisory boards to help expunging low-level criminal records that could prevent someone from getting a job or apartment.

In essence, it's about removing obstacles for the area's Black, Indigenous and other residents of color.

"There may be barriers that we haven't dug deep enough yet to find that are going to impact some of those decisions," said Leigh Durbahn, a management analyst at Olmsted County.

People of color are more likely to face health challenges than whites in the U.S. across a variety of factors, and Minnesota is no different. A 2018 University of Minnesota report shows Black residents suffer from diabetes and kidney disease at 1.5 times the rate of the general population; that number increases to three times the rate of the general population for Asian residents and four times for Indigenous residents.

Black residents account for about 7% of Olmsted County's population of about 163,000 residents. Yet they made up about 35% of the county's confirmed COVID-19 cases as of July 2022.

Residents of color face more financial disparities than their white counterparts, making it harder to seek medical care. According to a 2021 county study, about 32% of whites say they're financially stressed; 54% of residents of color identify the same way. About 40% of Olmsted County's Black residents live in poverty.

County officials are hoping to change those outcomes through tackling a variety of gaps in social services. Olmsted officials plan to revamp their data collection practices to ensure more families of color have access to county programs, as well as reach out to community groups for continuous feedback, among other things.

Olmsted County is still early in the process of identifying specific steps, according to Durbahn. She said county staff members haven't yet identified ways they're already addressing some of the recommendations, which needs to happen before the county creates new programs or efforts for residents of color.

The county will likely look to other area groups for support. A report on Black homeownership issued earlier this month by the Coalition for Rochester Area Housing recommended several steps lenders, real estate agents and first-time buyers can take to secure a house.

That includes creating a homeowner mentor network, partnering with more community groups, hiring more Realtors and lenders of color, providing interpreters in the homebuying process and even simplifying the language on a mortgage application form.

Other groups are already interested in the county's work. Will Ruffin, the director of equity and engagement at Rochester Public Schools, said he sees opportunities to expand area efforts to provide housing, substance use and mental health access for families.

The school district already has a housing coordinator and access to mental health professionals and substance use counselors, which could grow with county and city partnerships.

"It we can come at it like a full-court press, I think we will start to see some of that change," Ruffin said. "People won't feel like it's lip service because it will be all around us instead of just in our individual sector."