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Colorado to declare racism a public health crisis after push by agency staffers

Posted at 10:30 AM, Jul 31, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-31 21:54:17-04

DENVER — Colorado will declare racism a public health crisis following a push by staffers inside the state’s health department to respond to ongoing social-justice protests and the inequities highlighted by the coronavirus pandemic.

Since June, employees at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment have pressed Executive Director Jill Hunsaker Ryan to make such a public declaration and became increasingly frustrated when she didn’t move faster to do so.

When asked this week about those internal conversations, Hunsaker Ryan told our partners at The Denver Post the state will join the American Public Health Association in declaring racism a public health crisis, and that will become formal policy within the health department.

In doing so, Hunsaker Ryan said she has two goals: to increase diversity in the department’s workforce, which is almost 78% white, and make it easier for local community organizations that provide services to people of color to partner with the agency. She also plans to hire an equity and inclusion officer for the department, potentially by the end of August.

In a statement to Denver7, Hunsaker Ryan said, "As a public health field, we have a duty to address and dismantle systemic racism. Racism is absolutely a pervasive, persistent public health crisis and CDPHE stands with the American Public Health Association declaring it so. Unlike other crises like COVID, racism has been going on for generations, which makes it particularly horrific in the year 2020. For many outside of the public health field, it may be a shift to think about racism impacting health, but discrimination in every day life, including housing, education, criminal justice and employment, have a profound impact on people’s quality of life and ultimately their physical and mental health."

The announcement comes a month-and-a half after the Jefferson County Department of Public Health declared racism a crisis as well.

"It is really something that has long been an issue in public health," said Margaret Huffman, the director of community health services division within the health department. "We just said, 'this has got to be declared as a health crisis and we have to work really hard to address it.'"

The way Huffman sees it, racism is a crisis on two fronts: chronic and acute.

On the chronic end, things like obesity, diabetes, patient care, and the maternal mortality rate disproportionately affect communities of color. These are issues that have been going on for years or even decades.

On the acute end, the COVID-19 pandemic has also disproportionately affected minorities.

After declaring racism as a public health crisis, the Jefferson County Public Health Department is now rethinking its strategic plan and figuring out how to turn the declaration into action. Huffman says this is a long-term commitment that will require digging deep to identify problem areas as well as solutions.

"We had lots and lots of conversations about this and we continue to have a lot of conversations around this and what does this resolution actually mean, what are the plans that we can actually put into place and action items so that we’re not just holding up a piece of paper saying this is what we say, but we’re also saying this is what we do," Huffmans said.

Declaring racism a public health crisis is something the American Public Health Association has been pushing for for several years.

Dr. Georges Benjamin, the executive director of APHA, says he hopes this declaration will create an urgency to a address the problem and free up resources to deal with it.

Dr. Benjamin works in an emergency room and says he has seen the bias and racism firsthand.

Quite often people treat folks based on color because they think maybe they don’t have good insurance," he said.

In his professional career, Dr. Benjamin says he has also recognized his own bias at times.

"I always try to give them the best care that I could, but if I made the assumption that they simply couldn’t afford it and not give them the best medication that they really needed for their condition, then I would’ve been profiling them. By the way, that happens often," he said.

Black Lives Matter 5280, meanwhile, says it's cautiously optimistic about the declaration but believes it was long overdue and wants to know what are the tangible next steps health departments plan to take.

"My concern is, what are the implications of this? Will this create more funding to examine some of the health disparities among Black, Indigenous and Latino populations or is this just a symbolic gesture," said Dr. Apryl Alexander.

She also wants to know what sorts of long-term funding or support the programs will set up to deal with these disparities.

More than anything, she'd like to see more accountability for the public health systems in the state so that minorities are no longer left behind.

In a statement to Denver7, Governor Jared Polis' spokesperson also responded to the public health crisis saying, “The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the vast inequalities that exist in our society that drastically impact communities of color. It will take all of us working together to address these long standing challenges in order to protect the health of all Coloradans. The governor shares the hopes of advocates and CDPHE, that elevating racism and racial disparities to a public health crisis helps build the will needed for racial justice.”

Our news partners at The Denver Post contributed to this report. Click here to read more.