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CDC Director Declares Racism A 'Serious Public Health Threat'

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, seen last week at FEMA mass vaccination site in Boston, said Thursday that the CDC is taking steps to address the impact of racism on public health.
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, seen last week at FEMA mass vaccination site in Boston, said Thursday that the CDC is taking steps to address the impact of racism on public health.

Racism is a scourge in American society. It's also a serious public health threat, according to the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In a statement released Thursday, Dr. Rochelle Walensky pointed to the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color, as seen in case numbers, deaths and social consequence.

"Yet, the disparities seen over the past year were not a result of COVID-19," Walensky said. "Instead, the pandemic illuminated inequities that have existed for generations and revealed for all of America a known, but often unaddressed, epidemic impacting public health: racism."

"What we know is this: racism is a serious public health threat that directly affects the well-being of millions of Americans," she added. "As a result, it affects the health of our entire nation. Racism is not just the discrimination against one group based on the color of their skin or their race or ethnicity, but the structural barriers that impact racial and ethnic groups differently to influence where a person lives, where they work, where their children play, and where they worship and gather in community. These social determinants of health have life-long negative effects on the mental and physical health of individuals in communities of color."

The result, she says, are stark health disparities that have mounted over generations.

So what does it mean for the agency? Walensky has charged all of the offices and centers under the CDC to develop interventions and measurable health outcomes in the next year, addressing racism in their respective areas. And she's made clear that is a priority for the entire CDC.

The CDC also launched a new web portal, Racism and Health, that's designed to be a hub for public and scientific information and discourse on the subject.

The site notes that racism, in both its structural and interpersonal forms, has a negative effect on mental and physical health.

And Walensky isn't trying to avoid hard conversations.

"The word racism is intentional in this [initiative] for the CDC," she told Time magazine. "This is not just about the color of your skin but also about where you live, where you work, where your children play, where you pray, how you get to work, the jobs you have. All of these things feed into people's health and their opportunities for health."

The CDC committed to continuing to study how racism affects health, and propose and implement solutions accordingly. It will expand its investments in minority and other disproportionately affected communities to create "durable infrastructure" to address disparities.

"It has to be baked into the cake," Walensky told Time. "It's got to be part of what everybody is doing."

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