Long before Yale researcher Marcella Nunez-Smith began to study racial inequities in health care, she lived them.

She grew up on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, a place, she said, “where people too often die too young from preventable conditions.”

“I learned there was a term for what we were: an ‘underserved community,’ marginalized by place and by race,” she said last week when President-elect Joe Biden chose her to lead a new federal task force on racial disparities and the coronavirus pandemic.

Biden’s announcement of Nunez-Smith’s appointment came as he revealed his picks to lead the Department of Heath and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and named his surgeon general and Anthony S. Fauci as his chief medical adviser on the pandemic. The timing signaled that racial and ethnic disparities would be a major priority, rather than an afterthought, for his administration.

Since the first wave of the coronavirus hit in March, public health officials have expressed alarm that Blacks, Latinos and other people of color are more likely to fall ill with covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, than their White counterparts — and more likely to die. The gaps exist across all ages and genders, and in urban and rural settings and in different regions of the United States.

A Washington Post analysis of federal data from March to October found that after controlling for age, sex and mortality rates over time, Black Americans were 37 percent more likely to die of covid-19 than Whites; Asians, 53 percent more likely to die; Native Americans and Alaskan Natives, 26 percent more likely to die; and Hispanics, 16 percent more likely to die.

The new task force — the brainchild of Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris — is based on legislation she introduced in the Senate in April and will become the permanent Infectious Disease Racial Disparities Task Force when the pandemic ends.

Although Biden’s transition team has not given details on how the initiative will be organized and work, Harris’s legislation provides an outline of a group that would have the power to provide broad oversight and recommendations. Her legislation suggests that such a group would remain relevant by putting it in the middle of what every hospital, community organization, and state and local official care about: the billions of dollars in coronavirus relief funding and resources.

The Harris bill, which was co-sponsored by Sens. Cory Booker (N.J.), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and other prominent Democrats, along with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), did not make it out of committee in the Senate or the House. In the drafts, Harris described the task force as a way to bring together “health care and other policy experts, community-based organizations, and federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial leaders to confront the racial and ethnic disparities of this pandemic head on.”

Elena Rios, chief executive of the National Hispanic Medical Association, which endorsed the bill, said it created a unified voice to address decades-old disparities that have been ignored for too long.

“If you don’t have champions for the communities that have the most disparities, then change can’t happen,” she said.

According to Harris’s vision, the group would work closely with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Congress to identify communities with high levels of racial and ethnic disparities in infections, hospitalizations and deaths. It would weigh in weekly on how best to allocate resources, including masks, ventilators, testing kits, vaccines and staffing. It also would provide oversight and recommendations about disbursing coronavirus relief funding such as through the Education Stabilization Fund and the Paycheck Protection Program created under the Cares Act.

On a broader scale, the task force would look at inequalities preceding the pandemic, how they contributed to disparities now and the role of the federal response in health outcomes, and would make recommendations for the future.

Jane Delgado, president of the National Alliance for Hispanic Health, said she hopes one of the task force’s first missions will be to review which groups are among the first to receive vaccines. Essential workers, who are more likely to be people of color, should have higher priority, she said.

“People like to say we’re all in this together and it’s a nice kumbaya thing, but people are suffering at different levels, and the suffering I hear about in my community, especially among low-income or essential workers, that pain and suffering is palpable,” she said.

Nunez-Smith, an associate professor of internal medicine, public health and management at Yale, mostly stayed out of the spotlight until her appointment. In her academic and community work, she has said that stopping the virus’s spread requires an approach that extends beyond testing and that addresses economic issues such as employment benefits and opportunity and housing.

Nunez-Smith revealed Tuesday that her father had his first stroke in his 40s and was left paralyzed, and that after she became a physician, she saw “countless patients whose conditions were shaped by factors having nothing to do with science and everything to do with broader social inequity.”

“And now, the covid-19 crisis has laid those inequities bare," she said.