From Boston to San Bernardino, California, communities across the U.S. are declaring racism a public health crisis.
Fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic’s disproportionate impact on communities of color, as well as the killing of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police, cities and counties are calling for more funding for health care and other public services, sometimes at the expense of the police budget.
It’s unclear whether the public health crisis declarations, which are mostly symbolic, will result in more money for programs that address health disparities rooted in racism. But officials in a few communities that made the declaration last year say it helped them anticipate the COVID-19 pandemic. Some say the new perspective could expand the role of public health officials in local government, especially when it comes to reducing police brutality against Black and Latino residents.
The declarations provide officials a chance to decide “whether they are or are not going to be the chief health strategists in their community,” said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association.
“I’ve had a firm view [that] what hurts people or kills people is mine,” said Benjamin, a former state health officer in Maryland. “I may not have the authority to change it all by myself, but by being proactive, I can do something about that.”
While public health officials have long recognized the impact of racial disparities on health, the surge of public support for the Black Lives Matter movement is spurring calls to move from talk to financial action.
In Boston, Mayor Martin J. Walsh declared racism a public health crisis on June 12 and a few days later submitted a budget that transferred 20% of the Boston Police Department’s overtime budget — $12 million — to services like public and mental health, housing and homelessness programs. The budget must be approved by the City Council.
In California, the San Bernardino County board on Tuesday unanimously adopted a resolution declaring racism a public health crisis. The board was spurred by a community coalition that is pushing mental health and substance abuse treatment as alternatives to incarceration. The coalition wants to remove police from schools and reduce the use of a gang database they say is flawed and unfairly affects the Black community.
The city of Columbus and Franklin County, Ohio, made similar declarations in June and May, respectively, while Ingham County, Michigan, passed a resolution June 9. All three mention the coronavirus pandemic’s disproportionate toll on minority residents.
Those localities follow in the footsteps of Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, which last year became the first jurisdiction in the country to declare racism a public health crisis, citing infant and maternal mortality rates among Blacks. The county’s focus on the issue primed officials to look for racial disparities in COVID-19, said Nicole Brookshire, executive director of the county’s Office on African American Affairs.
Milwaukee County was training employees in racial equity and had launched a long-term plan to reduce disparities in health when the pandemic hit. “It was right on our radar to know that having critical pieces of data would help shape what the story was,” said Brookshire.
She credits this focus for the county’s speedy publication of information showing that Black residents were becoming infected with and dying of COVID-19 at disproportionate rates.
Using data to tell the story of racial disparities “was ingrained” in staff, she said.
On March 27, the county launched an online dashboard containing race and ethnicity data for COVID-19 cases and began to reach out to minority communities with culturally relevant messaging about stay-at-home and social distancing measures. Los Angeles County and New York City did not publish their first racial disparity data until nearly two weeks later.
Declaring racism a public health crisis could motivate health officials to demand a seat at the table when municipalities make policing decisions, and eventually lead to greater spending on services for minorities, some public health experts say.
The public is pressuring officials to acknowledge that racism shortens lives, said Natalia Linos, executive director of Harvard’s Center for Health and Human Rights. Police are 2½ times as likely to kill a Black man as a white man, and research has shown that such deaths have ripple effects on mental health in the wider Black community, she said.
“Police brutality is racism and it kills immediately,” Linos said. “But racism also kills quietly and insidiously in terms of the higher rates of infant mortality, maternal mortality and higher rates of chronic diseases.”
The public health declarations, while symbolic, could help governments see policing in a new light, Linos said. If they treated police-involved killings the way they did COVID-19, health departments would get an automatic notification every time someone died in custody, she said. Currently, no official database tracks these deaths, although news outlets like The Washington Post and The Guardian do.
Reliable data would allow local governments to examine how many homeless or mentally ill people would be better served by social or public health workers than armed police, said Linos.
“Even symbolic declarations are important, especially if they’re accurately capturing public opinion,” said Linos, who is running to represent the 4th Congressional District of Massachusetts on a platform of health and equity. “They’re important for communities to feel like they’re being listened to, and they’re important as a way to begin conversations around budgeting and concrete steps.”
Derrell Slaughter, a district commissioner in Ingham County, Michigan, said he hopes his county’s declaration will lead to more funding for social and mental health as opposed to additional policing. Slaughter and his colleagues are attempting to create an advisory committee, with community participation, to make budget and policy recommendations to that end, he said.
Columbus City Council members coincidentally declared racism a public health crisis on May 25, the day Floyd died in Minneapolis. Four months earlier, the mayor had asked health commissioner Dr. Mysheika Roberts for recommendations to address health issues that stem from racism.
The recent protests against police brutality have made Roberts realize that public health officials need to take part in discussions about crowd control tactics like tear gas, pepper spray and wooden bullets, she said. However, she has reservations about giving the appearance that her office sanctions their use.
“That definitely is one of the cons,” she said, “but I think it’s better than not being there at all.”
Published courtesy of KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a nonprofit news service covering health issues. It is an editorially independent program of KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation), which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.
Lt. Col. Joseph Henry Ward, M.D., Dr. John A. Kenney and his son, Dr. Howard W. Kenney, are not exactly household names.
But these VA trailblazers deserve to be remembered for the great strides they made toward equality in health care leading up to and during the Civil Rights Movement.
Since these beginnings, VA has continued its commitment to hiring a diverse workforce. To be able to truly serve our Veterans, VA must cultivate an inclusive and welcoming environment for employees from all backgrounds.
“We are all on the same team, and diversity makes us all better,” said Darren Sherrard, associate director of recruitment marketing at VA.
Fighting for Equal Care
In 1924, Ward became VA’s first African American hospital director at the nation’s only segregated Veteran hospital in Alabama. He served there until his retirement in 1936. A World War I Veteran, Ward lived long enough to see the end of racial segregation in VA hospitals in 1954.
John Kenney was one of the hospital’s first physicians. He fought to have it staffed with African American medical professionals. Later forced to move to New Jersey due to threats to his life and family, Kenney went on to use his own money to build a hospital for African American patients.
But his son, Howard, would return to Alabama and continue his father’s legacy. He served as medical director at the same VA hospital where his father worked. Later, he became the first African American to integrate a formerly all-white VA hospital and VA’s first African American regional director.
VA celebrates these heroes who not only served other American heroes at VA but worked to break down barriers.
Continuing a Culture of Community
VA embraces inclusion and empowers employees to perform to their highest potential. Maintaining this culture of support and community allows employees to feel appreciated and respected. Only then can they provide exceptional care for the nation’s Veterans.
“There is strength in diversity,” said Cathy Mattox, a VA utilization management review registered nurse. “Every nurse brings something to the table; each one of their skillsets and individual experiences are valuable.”
Through VA’s Office of Resolution Management, Diversity and Inclusion, several special-emphasis programs focus on recruiting specific populations, including black/African American, Hispanic, LGBT and individuals with disabilities. The Diversity and Inclusion in VA Council, an independent, executive-level body, advises the VA Secretary about issues related to diversity and inclusion.
Work at VA
If you’re interested in being part of a diverse organization that gives back to America’s Veterans, consider joining our team.
Over the past month, a growing number of nursing associations have been calling upon members of the profession to take action against racism.
The first official remarks appeared the day after George Floyd’s death. On May 31, the Minnesota Nurses Association issued a press release stating that “nurses continue to see the devastating effects of systematic racism and oppression targeting people of color in our communities. We demand justice for George Floyd and a stop to the unnecessary death of black men at the hands of those who should protect them.”
The Board of Directors of the New York State Nurses Association declared, “As nurses, we mourn for the hundreds of Black men and women killed by the police every year, like Breonna Taylor, an EMT studying to be a nurse in Louisville, Kentucky.” The NYSNA called upon nurses to “fight against the bigotry, intolerance, and hate fueling current politics and feeding an armed white supremacist movement that threatens our democracy.”
This is “a pivotal moment,” according to ANA President Ernest J. Grant. In a June 1 statement, he urged US nurses “to use our voices to call for change. To remain silent is to be complicit.”
Calling racism “a public health crisis,” the Washington State Nurses Association said, “Racism has a 400 year history in America – and the hand of racism rests heavily on the health care system and public health. We know that people of color face systemic barriers to accessing health care and being listened to or heard. It is the reason African American women face higher rates of maternal death and why the burden of the coronavirus pandemic is falling more heavily on people of color. It is why African Americans have the highest death rate and shortest survival of any racial and ethnic group in the US for most cancers. It is why African Americans are almost twice as likely to die from a firearm than their white counterparts. And, it is why we as nurses must look racism in the face and call it what it is.”
The Oregon Nurses Association commented, “As nurses, it is our duty and our calling to protect and serve the health and well-being of the entire community. That duty extends particularly to people of color who are especially vulnerable in this healthcare system.” In an interview with Austin station KXAN, Dr. Cindy Zolnierek, CEO of the Texas Nurses Association, echoed Grant’s statement, saying, “This is core to our ethics. It’s human rights so we cannot stand on the sidelines. To be silent is to be complicit. So, we have a role in this. We have a role to play in advancing human rights – in advancing health care.”
The Kentucky Nurses Association released a seven-point action plan to combat racism both in the profession and in the culture at large. The plan includes goals such as “training for nurses regarding racial disparities,” promoting the “recruitment of African American nurses and other nurses of color to serve on boards and commissions and leadership positions within our organization as well as others that focus on health,” and the addition of “cultural competency training, bias training and disparity education in every Kentucky nursing school curriculum.”
The Massachusetts Nurses Association also spoke out: “As nurses and healing professionals… we recognize institutional racism and the systematic oppression of communities of color as both a crisis in public health and a pervasive obstacle to achieving the goals of our work in both nursing practice and in the labor movement.”
Other nursing organizations issued anti-racism action statements as well, including the American Academy of Nursing, the International Family Nursing Association, the Rheumatology Nurses Society, and the Association of Rehabilitation Nurses.
Following the May 25 death of George Floyd, nurses and other healthcare providers have been taking action not only to protest the deaths of Black citizens at the hands of police, but also to draw attention to the severe knock-on effects of racism on the health of Black communities, including an inordinate rate of mortalities from heart disease, diabetes, COVID-19, and other illnesses. Braving the risks of coronavirus, tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets, nurses, who often see the fruits of social inequality at firsthand, have provided protestors with first aid as well as taking part themselves.
Nursing organizations have joined individual nurses in speaking out. American Nurses Association President Ernest J. Grant, PhD, RN, FAAN issued a moving statement, in which he remarked, “As a black man and registered nurse, I am appalled by senseless acts of violence, injustice, and systemic racism and discrimination. Even I have not been exempt from negative experiences with racism and discrimination. The Code of Ethics obligates nurses to be allies and to advocate and speak up against racism, discrimination and injustice. This is non-negotiable…. At this critical time in our nation, nurses have a responsibility to use our voices to call for change. To remain silent is to be complicit.”
“You clapped for us. We kneel for you.”
A mingling of professional training and empathy moved nurses such as Miami RN Rochelle Bradley to take a knee in remembrance of Floyd’s death. Bradley told CNN that “Kneeling here today for nine minutes and knowing that that’s how long George Floyd was on the ground with his airway compromised really bothered me as a nurse.”
For healthcare workers, the protests also reinforced their sense of unity in the era of COVID-19. In Boston, nurses who gathered to kneel in front of Brigham and Women’s Hospital carried a sign reading, “You clapped for us. We kneel for you.” One nurse interviewed, Roberta Biens, said, “I just want everybody to know they’re not alone, we’re with them and we’ll stand in front of them or behind them, wherever we need to be to support them.”
Minneapolis nurses appeared in force at the protests. One local ER nurse told the Insider, “COVID is a temporary and critical health crisis. Racism, through violence and disease, has been killing our patients since the hospital was built and will continue killing them long after COVID is gone.” And in an official statement, the Minnesota Nurses Association said, “Nurses continue to see the devastating effects of systematic racism and oppression targeting people of color in our communities. We demand justice for George Floyd and a stop to the unnecessary death of black men at the hands of those who should protect them.”
Hospitals in New York City united to stand behind the protests. The Gothamist scanned official Twitter posts and noted, “The six major hospital systems in the city–NYU Langone Health, Mount Sinai Health System, New York-Presbyterian, NYC Health + Hospitals, Northwell Health, and Montefiore Health System–have all posted publicly in support of the demonstrations…”
Weighing the Call to Civic Action Against Public Health Concerns
Medical practitioners are understandably divided about engaging in public assemblies while the coronavirus is still at large, but many believe the risk is worth taking. On June 8, World Health Organization (WHO) director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, “WHO fully supports equality and the global movement against racism,” but added, “As much as possible, keep at least 1 meter from others, clean your hands, cover your cough and wear a mask if you attend a protest.”
Asked by Health.com about the danger of public protests, Natalie DiCenzo, an Ob-Gyn resident in New Jersey, responded that “the risk of remaining silent and complacent in the face of racism and police violence is also deadly. I believe that with the proper precautions, these protests can be done relatively safely when it comes to COVID-19.”
Nearly 2,000 US “public health professionals, infectious diseases professionals, and community stakeholders” also expressed direct support for the national protests in a widely circulated June 4 letter (initiated by faculty from the University of Washington School of Medicine). Following a statement that “White supremacy is a lethal public health issue that predates and contributes to COVID-19,” the letter recommended a series of safety measures to protect protestors from the virus. Among other issues it urged “that protesters not be arrested or held in confined spaces, including jails or police vans, which are some of the highest-risk areas for COVID-19 transmission, “ and that no use be made of “tear gas, smoke, or other respiratory irritants, which could increase risk for COVID-19 by making the respiratory tract more susceptible to infection…”
On Twitter, nurses participating in the protests offered their own practical suggestions. A DC pediatric nurse told attendees to bring gloves, sunglasses or goggles for eye protection, and “an extra mask. Yours will get hot and sweaty so switching it out halfway through is smart. If you have a cloth mask throw a bandana on top too…” Following participation in protests, some nurses have also taken the step of self-quarantining for two weeks.
A midwife–especially a Black midwife–can tilt the balance between life and death for African American infants and their mothers. Regardless of income and education level, childbirth for Black women is more dangerous than it is for White women. Even Serena Williams had a dangerous close call during her pregnancy, after doctors failed to heed her request for a CT scan and blood thinner medicine. Despite her history of blot clots, it was posited that “Williams’ pain medication must be making her confused.”
The Centers for Disease Control reports
that African American mothers die at three to four times the rate of White
women, and the mortality rate of Black infants is higher than that of any other
ethnic group in the US. Why? As AmericanProgress.org states in a 2019
policy blueprint, “Racism is part and parcel of being black in the United
States, and it compromises the health of African American women and their
infants… Put simply, structural racism compromises health.” According to Dr
David Williams, a pioneer in measuring the effects of racism on health, “We now
know that discrimination is linked to higher blood pressure, to high levels of
inflammation, to low infant birth weight…”
Enter the Midwife
One action that promises to change these dire
statistics is expansion of the midwifery movement, especially within the
African American community. Angela
Doyinsola Aina, interim director of the Black
Mamas Matter Alliance (BMMA) recently told an American Public Health
Association (APHA) conference, “We have to go beyond just talking about giving
people, especially low-income people, access to care…. We also need to ask
whether that care is high quality and culturally relevant.”
Where do Black midwives come into the picture? ProPublica
notes in a report
on how increasing the role of midwifery in the US could reduce maternal
complications and mother/infant mortality rates, “Many… [US] states
characterized by poor health outcomes and hostility to midwives also have large black populations, raising
the possibility that greater use of midwives could reduce racial disparities in
maternity care.” And Lamaze.org
suggests, “When Black families are cared for by Black health professionals,
like midwives, they are better heard, seen, respected, understood, and get
their needs met, which relates directly to health outcomes.”
One of the women at the forefront of the Black Midwives
movement is Jennie Joseph, founder of the Birth
Place in Winter Garden, FL. Joseph’s work as a provider of perinatal
services to underserved and uninsured women of color has already brought about
positive change in the CDC numbers. Trained in the UK, where half of all babies
are delivered by midwives, Jennie Joseph arrived in the US to find that in the
most affluent country in the world, owing to concerted opposition from doctors
and hospitals, midwives attend only 10% of all births. She also found that the
US has a much higher incidence of maternal and infant mortality
rates—particularly among minorities and the disenfranchised—than in countries
such as Canada, Sweden, and the UK, where midwives attend the majority of
Joseph’s “open access” clinic at the Birth Place provides pre-natal
and post-partum care for women regardless of their ability to pay and focuses
on minority and underserved women in the area. As Miriam Zoila Perez marveled
in the New
York Times, the Birth Place manages to beat the dire maternity figures for
women of color: “When you look into her statistics, you find something quite
rare: Almost all of her patients give birth to healthy, full-term babies… maybe
not surprising until you learn that the majority of them are low-income
African-Americans, Haitians and Latinas….”
Expanding the Midwives’ Movement
Another pioneering Black midwife is Shafia Monroe, who has long been one of
the major forces behind the Black midwives’ movement. Founder of the
International Center for Traditional Childbearing (which was re-formed in 2018
as the National Association to Advance Black Birth) and winner of a Lifetime
Achievement Award from the Human Rights in Childbirth Foundation, Monroe
started working with mothers and infants as a nurse’s aide in the postpartum
ward at Boston City Hospital at the age of 17. It was in 1991, when she
encountered difficulties in finding a midwife of color for her own pregnancy, that
Monroe founded her influential International Center for Traditional
Childbearing. Under the auspices of the ICTC, she became a pioneering figure in
the cause of Black midwifery. Monroe has worked tirelessly to reduce
mortalities linked to pregnancy and to increase the number of Black midwives
and doulas. To women who are interested in becoming midwives, Moore urges, “Join
an organization! There’s MANA (Midwives Alliance
of North America), ICTC, ACNM (American College of Nurse Midwives);
there’s so many organizations. Look into organizations that are familiar with
black reproductive issues, and our history.”
As the co-director of Black Mamas Matter Alliance (BMMA), Elizabeth Dawes Gay, says, “If even one more person just says they want to take up the cause, they want to become a doula, they want to become a midwife, they want to start an organization—to me that’s a success.”
Duke, Rutgers, University of Alabama-Birmingham, and nine
other colleges and universities have been recognized as the “2019 Best Schools
for Men in Nursing” by the American Association
for Men in Nursing (AAMN).
Winning institutions are selected based on the significant efforts they have made to increase the number of male applicants, enrollees, admissions, and/or retentions in their programs, and have been shown to provide a supportive educational environment for male student nurses. All schools applying for the award are accredited by the National League of Nursing or the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education and have had a minimum NCLEX pass rate of 80% over the past three years.
2019 Best Schools for Men in Nursing
In alphabetical order, the winners are:
- Duke University School of Nursing
- John Hopkins University School of Nursing
- Lewis University College of Nursing and Health
- Nebraska Methodist College of Nursing
- Northern Illinois University School of Nursing
- NYU Rory Meyers College of Nursing
- Rutgers School of Nursing
- University of Alabama-Birmingham School of
- University of Cincinnati College of Nursing
- University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh College of
Vanderbilt University School of Nursing
- West Coast University College of Nursing
2019 Best Workplaces for Men in Nursing:
- New York Presbyterian Hospital
- Vanderbilt University Medical Center
For a full list of 2019 AAMN awards, visit the AAMN awards page.