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CDC Declares Racism A Public Health Threat

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a declaration today that many had long been waiting for - an official statement that racism is a serious threat to the public's health. It also launched a new agencywide initiative aimed at recognizing that structural racism is a fundamental cause of health inequality in America. Here to tell us more about all of this is NPR health correspondent Maria Godoy. Hey, Maria.

MARIA GODOY, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: So, I mean, we've been hearing that racism is a serious threat to public health for quite some time now. How is this statement by the CDC anything new?

GODOY: You know, it's new because the CDC is saying it. Up until now, the CDC did not list racism as a public health threat, even though, certainly, this has been known. The COVID-19 pandemic has really laid bare the racial and ethnic health inequalities that exist in this country. We've seen this virus take a disproportionate toll on Black and brown communities. The death of George Floyd and others like him have just further shown us how racism can cut short the lives of people of color. And in response to all of this, you've had local jurisdictions across the U.S. declaring racism a public health threat. But the CDC hadn't until now.

CHANG: And why is that?

GODOY: You know, former CDC employees say that the agency has long been reluctant to engage with the issue of racism publicly. In fact, last year, more than 1,400 CDC employees wrote a letter calling on the agency to not only declare racism a public health crisis but also address a lack of diversity and inclusion within its own ranks. Dr. Camara Phyllis Jones spent 14 years as a medical officer with the CDC, and she says this statement is a long time coming.

CAMARA PHYLLIS JONES: There have been people within CDC for generations, I would say, that have recognized that racism is a threat to the health and well-being of the nation. But for the agency now to say that with one voice from the top is what is different. I think that it is amazing.

CHANG: Well, what does this declaration mean in practical terms?

GODOY: That's the big question. The CDC says it plans to study how social determinants impact people's health - in other words, how access to things like healthy food, good schools, infrastructure, jobs, a healthy environment can all affect our health. This is what people mean when they talk about structural racism. It's really the fact that different racial and ethnic groups have unequal access to these things. The CDC is also now doing things like partnering with churches to help create community vaccination centers. These are for COVID now, but CDC hopes that this will create lasting infrastructure that can be used for, say, cancer screenings or childhood immunizations later down the road.

CHANG: OK. That may be happening at the federal level, but, I mean, Maria, public health is also, as you know, a local effort. So how is what the CDC did today going to influence the hundreds of local jurisdictions in this country?

GODOY: Well, Jones points out that the CDC has a powerful platform. It can set the agenda for public health agencies across the nation. I also spoke with Dr. Mary Bassett of Harvard. She's a former New York City health commissioner. She says she ran her agency with a racial equity lens. She gave me a great example of how this helped them see problems they might not have seen before. It turns out that the public health engineers in her agency made a disturbing discovery when it came to swimming-pool deaths.

MARY BASSETT: They found a large difference in risk of a swimming-pool drowning for Black children as compared to white children.

GODOY: And because they had this racial equity lens at top of mind in all their work, it helped them think of creative solutions to address this. In this case, the agency got the parks department to volunteer lifeguards. They started offering free swimming lessons to kids in low-income neighborhoods, which tend to be Black and brown neighborhoods. Bassett says this is the kind of thinking that happens when you address the larger conditions that put people at a health disadvantage.

CHANG: Right.

GODOY: And she says the CDC's statement is the first step toward this kind of action.

CHANG: That is NPR's Maria Godoy. Thank you, Maria.

GODOY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.