Statement From New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Mary T. Bassett as National Public Health Week Begins With A Spotlight On Racism: A Public Health Crisis

The New York State Department of Health Joins In the Nationwide Celebration With Activities Launched Throughout the Week

ALBANY, N.Y. (April 4, 2022) - "This week the New York State Department of Health joins in the nationwide celebration of National Public Health Week, beginning with the recognition of racism as a public health crisis.

Since the first collection of health data in the United States, there has not been a single year when Black Americans have not suffered sicker, shorter lives than their white counterparts. For the past two years and to this day still, those of us in public health remain fully entrenched in the battle against COVID-19. Across states, the politics and policies differ, but the research is consistent: Black Americans have substantially higher rates of COVID-19 hospitalization.

When the Omicron variant swept New York State, it brought familiar inequities with it. As the surge progressed, this gap only widened. New York State's data aren't perfect – racial ethnic data are often incomplete – but the trend seems clear: During the Omicron wave, the hospitalization rate for Black New Yorkers peaked at being two times that of white New Yorkers. And, among those admitted to the hospital, Black patients were more likely to be unvaccinated than white patients (62 percent versus 55 percent, respectively). However, this alone does not explain two-fold difference in hospitalizations.

The statistics before us are not new. In fact, COVID-19's destructive path was directed by longstanding, systemic failures: the failure to ensure everyone's right to accessible healthcare and to healthy environments in which to live, work, and learn; and the failure to ensure safe workplaces, living wages, affordable housing, and proper air ventilation for all. In the past few months, our own Department is fighting allegations that it is wrong to include race as a clinical risk consideration for monoclonal antibody treatments within our COVID-19 health guidance when again, the data so obviously supports such consideration.

Health departments around the nation were among those that sounded the alarm that this virus contributes to exacerbating the longstanding racial and ethnic disparities. In April 2020, a statewide study by the Department showed that while 8 percent of non-Hispanic white New Yorkers had been infected, 20 percent of non-Hispanic Black New Yorkers had – a nearly 2.5-fold gap.

Like the data, the solution is facing us. As we enter a week firmly acknowledging the role race plays in determining health outcomes, those of us in public health must recommit to not just monitoring these trends, but taking action to change them. Because they can be changed; these unfair odds are not in our genes. Rather, they are rooted in our society and the longstanding racial differences in life chances.

Late last year, Governor Hochul signed legislation declaring racism a public health crisis. This allows New York to take important steps to identify and address inequities in our healthcare system and society. Other actions, like extending the State's health plan through the pandemic – will help more New Yorkers ensure they have what the Governor so aptly called the dignity of quality healthcare. Since the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, the State has cut the number of uninsured New Yorkers in half across every racial and ethnic group. One and a half million New Yorkers have newly enrolled since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Still, there is more work to do. We must act with solidarity to heal a national pathology, far beyond COVID, from which none of us is immune. Not just today, but every day, public health leaders must explicitly acknowledge the role of racism so that it not only informs, but drives, our quest to seek the best promotional health programs for all – and specifically, for Black, Brown, and Indigenous New Yorkers. Doing so is our moral obligation and also a necessary component to do our jobs competently.

This Public Health week, our nation will continue to grapple with the current state of the pandemic and the future of our public health response. As we do, so too must we blatantly – and finally – seek racial equality in health in the same light."