CDC director declares racism a ‘serious public health threat’ impacting millions of Americans

On Thursday, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, declared racism a "serious public health threat," promising new efforts to "address racism as a fundamental driver of racial and ethnic health inequities in the United States."

In a statement published on the CDC’s website, Walensky highlighted how communities of color have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.  

"The impact of COVID-19 are felt, most severely, in communities of color—communities that have experienced disproportionate case counts and deaths, and where the social impact of the pandemic has been most extreme," 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," she continued. 

RELATED: 1 in 4 young Asian Americans experienced anti-Asian hate amid COVID-19

Walensky called racism a public health issue that directly impacts the well-being and health of millions of Americans. She called on the CDC to play a larger role in addressing racism and its impact on the nation. 

"What we know is this: racism is a serious public health threat that directly affects the well-being of millions of Americans. 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," Walensky said. 

The CDC has listed a series of actions it plans to take in order to combat this issue including: 

  • Study the impact of social determinants on health outcomes and expand evidence on how racism impacts health
  • Added funding for communities of color disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic
  • Expand internal agency efforts to foster greater diversity

Walensky also said a new web portal called "Racism and Health" will be added to "serve as a catalyst for public and scientific discourse around racism and health, and to be accountable for our progress."

While these actions taken by the CDC are recent, Walensky says generations of structural inequities "have resulted in stark racial and ethnic health disparities that are severe, far-reaching and unacceptable."

A recent study conducted by the Stop AAPI (Asian-American Pacific Islander) Hate Youth Campaign found that 1 in 4 young Asian Americans have personally experienced anti-Asian hate amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The study, supported by the Jeremy Lin Foundation, consisted of interviewing 990 young adults and observing 2,499 reported anti-Asian hate cases across the United States involving people who experienced some type of discrimination whether it was verbal harassment, shunning or cyberbullying.

A study released in September 2020 found that COVID-19 killed Black, Hispanic and American Indian children at disproportionately higher numbers than White children.

Between February and July 2020, there were a total of 391,814 confirmed or probable COVID-19 cases in individuals aged less than 21 years with 121 coronavirus deaths reported to the CDC.

Among the 121 deaths, 45% were Hispanic, 29% Black and 4% were American Indian/Alaska Native, suggesting that 78% of the reported deaths among children were minorities.

"Although Hispanic, Black, and AI/AN persons represent 41% of the U.S. population aged <21 years (4), these groups accounted for approximately 75% of deaths in persons aged <21 years," the study said.

This story was reported from Los Angeles. Catherine Park contributed to this story.