Linn County Board of Health calls for racism to be addressed as a public health crisis

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People in Cedar Rapids rallied against systemic racism and oppression on Friday, July 3. — Michael Schodin/Little Village

The Linn County Board of Health is calling for immediate action to address racism as a public health crisis.

The board outlined seven actions in a position statement published on Thursday, including establishing an Office of Minority Health at Linn County Public Health; urging businesses to incorporate implicit bias training and offer educational training to expand employees’ understanding of how racism affects individuals; and building ties between local government and communities focusing on health equity to achieve “community-centered solutions.”

At least 20 cities and counties and three states — Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan — have declared racism a public health crisis. That list does not include any cities or counties in Iowa.

“While management of the current Covid-19 pandemic is an ongoing challenge, we are greatly concerned about the unjust loss of black lives in recent weeks,” said the statement signed by the board’s five members: Drs. Mary Tarbox and James Levett, Leslie Wright, Karl Cassell and Linn County Supervisor Stacey Walker.

More than 100 studies have linked racism to worse health outcomes for people of color. Such studies have documented disproportionate rates of COVID-19 illness and death in African American/People of Color communities as well as police violence that disproportionately affects minorities and is a leading cause of death for young men of color.

Black and Latino Iowans have been testing positive for COVID-19 at disproportionate rates. As of Friday morning, Black Iowans make up 9 percent of the total positive cases, but only 4 percent of the population. Latino Iowans, who are 6 percent of the state’s population, are 23 percent of the total number of positive cases.

LCPH has been publishing information about race and ethnicity since late April. Black residents in the county are also testing positive at higher rates. As of Friday morning, Black residents make up 22 percent of the county’s positive cases, despite being 5.9 percent of the population. Latino residents, who are 3.4 percent of the county’s population, make up 4.5 percent of the total number of cases.

“The first step towards addressing racism as a public health crisis is to recognize it as such,” LCPH Director Pramod Dwivedi said in a news release. The letter also says that LCPH is committed to addressing racism as a public health crisis.

The seven actions the Board of Health outlines in its letter are:

• That racism is a public health crisis affecting all of us.

• That efforts are needed to build ties between local governments and communities focusing on health equity to achieve community-centered solutions.

• That the anticipation and long-term effects of violence and daily intimidation increase toxic stress, severely harming the health of families and whole communities.

• That community leaders of all sectors in Linn County should work to create inclusive organizations and businesses by identifying specific activities and policies which increase diversity across workforce and in leadership positions.

• That we shall collaboratively establish an Office of Minority Health at LCPH.

• That we shall ensure that all aspects of Linn County Public Health’s Health Equity Policy (PO-CA-006) are implemented into agency policies, processes, and programs.

• That our organizations and businesses should incorporate implicit bias training, inclusion and equity into organizational practice; offer educational training/activities to expand employees’ understanding of how racism affects individuals and the health of marginalized populations; provide tools to enable everyone to engage actively and authentically with communities of color.

“We as a community must work to support African Americans experiencing violence and other negative conditions resulting from systemic and institutional racism,” the Board of Health statement concludes. “Linn County Public Health calls on our policymakers, businesses, schools, and other community leaders and institutions to begin taking the necessary actions to address persistent discrimination in housing, education, employment, criminal justice, and healthcare that ultimately leads to poorer health outcomes among people of color. Creating equity and confronting racism directly will lead to improvement in the social determinants of health for everyone in our community and provide the social justice that is long overdue.”

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