Board of Health Urges Adoption of Declaration Of Racism As A Public Health Crisis

Photo: Wikimedia Commons (CC-by SA-2.0). Elvert Barnes Photography

Meeting of the Amherst Board of Health of July 8,2021

Members Nancy Gilbert (Chair), Steve George, Tim Randhir, and Maureen Millea. Health Director Emma Dragon
Guests: Lauren Mills and Ben Herrington.

Racism As A Public Health Crisis
Lauren Mills opened the discussion of racism as a public health crisis with some slides from a recent webinar from the American Public Health Association (APHA) featuring Camara Phyllis Jones, MD, MPH, PhD from Emory University. Mills pointed out the excess death and disability from COVID-19 among African Americans. She said Black people have more exposure and less protection against disease than other groups. And once they are infected, they are more likely to die, because of a higher burden of chronic disease and less access to care.

Mills listed several aspects of community life which adversely affect the public health of African Americans, such as the lack of access to the internet, need for Black spaces and entrepreneurship, lack of access to health care, racism in public education, community safety and policing, and the toxic stress of structural racism.

Human Rights Commission (HRC) chair and School Committee member Ben Herrington said the HRC is eager to partner with the Board of Health to deal with racism as a public health crisis. The APHA is encouraging municipalities to pass declarations stating that racism is a public health crisis . Gilbert said that Holyoke, Springfield, and Chicopee passed declarations last June, and Longmeadow followed in July. Herrington noted  that, with town elections looming in November, Amherst’s Town Council support of a declaration should be a campaign issue.

Gilbert said that the Town needs to move beyond talking and take action to combat health inequities due to racism, beginning with a declaration recognizing racism as a cause of these inequities. She said, listening to the reading of Frederick Douglass’ “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?” on the South Amherst Common on July 4, showed her how little had changed from when Douglass wrote it in 1852.  She pointed out that the Community Safety Working Group (CSWG) has been studying these issues and recommending programs to combat racism in town, but the Town is not fully funding their recommendations and is ending the CSWG’s work prematurely. She added that differential  high school graduation rates have been identified as a public health issue, but thus far there has been no commitment to creating a center for BIPOC youth envisioned by the CSWG. She also expressed hope that the vacancy on the Board of Health could be filled by a member of the BIPOC community.

Herrington agreed that Amherst is good at talking about a problem, but does not “walk the talk” by putting money behind its initiatives. But he said we are reaching a “tipping point” and need the Town Council to act.

Anita Sarro pointed to the work she and Jeff Fishman did for Reparations for Amherst to research health disparities. (p.19ff). She said that community engagement is essential for wellbeing, which is why the work of the CSWG is so important.

Gilbert said she has written a proposal to do a comprehensive assessment of community health and developed an assessme and is asking the Health Department to secure funding. She  noted that a collaborative team needs to be developed for this.

The Board agreed to draft a declaration, declaring racism as a public health crisis at their August meeting and to submit the draft to the Town Council. The APHA has suggestions for concrete steps municipalities can take to combat the effects of racism on health. The Board stressed the need to collaborate with other groups. George felt the Board should stay within its charge of promoting public health in Amherst and stay away from politics.  He said it would be helpful to have local data to support the declaration. 

Board members agreed to include Camara Jones’ definition below, of racism in their declaration.

“Racism is a system of structuring opportunity and assigning value based on the social interpretation of how one looks (which is what we call “race”), that unfairly disadvantages some individuals and communities, unfairly advantages other individuals and communities, and saps the strength of the whole society through the waste of human resources.”
— APHA Past-President Camara Phyllis Jones, MD, MPH, PhD

Dragon reported that 90 percent of Amherst residents over age 65 are fully vaccinated. Data for younger residents is less clear because of the transient nature of the college age population. Young people, ages 16-29 make up 64 percent of the population, but many are not in residence in the summer and may have received one of their injections elsewhere. A breakdown of vaccination by race in Amherst can be found here and downloaded here.

The vaccine clinics ended on June 28. Altogether the Amherst clinics administered 13,000 vaccines and engaged 200 volunteers. The health department also administered 300 vaccines in seven different schools and delivered 500 to homebound residents of area towns. Vaccine administration at neighborhood sites has been slow, but a larger operation is planned for July 24 at the East Hadley Road bike share station in conjunction with the Mobile Market. The Health Department is working on outreach to encourage unvaccinated citizens to participate.

The Board of Health held two listening sessions on the town’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic on June 22 and June 23. The first was for community members and the second for town staff. Gilbert is compiling  a report with the feedback received.

Jennifer Brown Leaving the Health Department July 16
Amherst Public Health nurse Jennifer Brown is going back to school for her PhD and will resign her position as of July16. The job has been posted. According to Dragon, the starting salary will be $27.41 an hour for an RN. Gilbert pointed out that school nurses in Amherst earn a minimum of $43 per hour plus step raises, and Wilbraham recently posted a position for an LPN for $40 per hour. She felt the salary Amherst was offering was insulting to nursing and to public health.

Liquor and Tobacco Violations
The Pioneer Valley Tobacco Commission recently fined four Amherst establishments $1000 each for alcohol and tobacco violations. They are Amherst Wines and Spirits, Spirit House, Cumberland Farms and Russells Liquor. 

Amherst’s new regulations Restricting Youth Access and Exposure to Tobacco and Nicotine Delivery Products went into effect January 1, 2021.  At that time the Board of Health added a requirement that each employee who sells tobacco products must complete and pass a Tobacco Handler’s Quiz.   The purpose of the quiz is to educate tobacco handlers and prevent selling violations.  The quiz must  be completed by each employee who sells tobacco and nicotine products.   The quizzes were distributed to tobacco selling establishments by the town’s Licensing Coordinator on July 7, 2021.  Gilbert expressed concern that the quizzes had not been distributed until almost six months after the February 2021 Board of Health meeting when there was discussion on the topic.  Millea noted that tobacco sales to minors under the age of 21 has been in effect in Amherst for over a decade.   At the first violation, the fine is $1000.00 and possible suspension. The second violation elicits a $3000 fine, and the third within 36 months a $5000 fine and license suspension.

Vacant Restaurants on Main Street
The vacant buildings near Town Hall on Main Street are in poor repair due to water leaks and pest infestation. It is unclear if they can be upgraded to meet safety requirements to re-open. One building is under new management.

The meeting adjourned at 7 p.m.

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