Connecticut cities and towns eager for change in the wake of George Floyd’s death are taking the symbolic step of declaring racism a public health crisis in their communities.
The pronouncements are designed to spur a deeper analysis of systemic issues and ultimately drive policy change. As more municipalities prepare to follow suit, health equity advocates are calling on Gov. Ned Lamont and the legislature to recognize racism as a public health emergency at the state level, laying the foundation for broader change.
“People are galvanizing around it because, I think, they see like we do that the first step in resolving a problem is acknowledging it,” said Tekisha Dwan Everette, executive director of Health Equity Solutions. “This is an opportunity to acknowledge there is physical, emotional and actual trauma happening around racism. It’s causing health issues.”
Everette’s group, which advocates for equitable health care access, delivery and outcomes, began reaching out to city and town leaders recently, asking them to adopt the declaration and offering guidance.
More than 20 cities and at least three states across the country have declared racism a public health crisis. Earlier this month, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh issued an executive order with the declaration and transferred $3 million from the police budget to the health department. The city council in Lansing, Mich., voted in favor of the declaration this week, calling out the city’s history of discriminatory business and housing practices.
In Connecticut, the local government in Windsor was the first to act. Last week, council members unanimously backed the measure.
Governing bodies in Hartford and Bloomfield followed Monday night, and the town council in West Hartford voted in favor on Tuesday.
“These ordinances are an opportunity to say, hey, we have a problem and we need to be intentional about correcting it,” Everette said. “It is our hope that, like most things that start on the local level, this momentum gets the state to take action.”
Everette sent an email to Lamont, top administration officials and Deidre Gifford, the acting commissioner of public health, last week asking them to consider the declaration. Her organization collected more than 570 signatures on a petition calling for “intentional racial equity decision-making by our elected officials.”
Max Reiss, a spokesman for Lamont, said the governor’s ability to take action by executive order is limited.
“The powers granted to the governor when he declares a public health emergency are temporary, and any action he takes during that brief period would terminate after a certain date,” Reiss said. “In the short-term, addressing police accountability is one of the governor’s priorities for the limited special session.”
Senate Democrats have shared their wish list of topics to address during a special session this summer, which is expected to convene in July. Among them are several health equity proposals, including strengthening data collection on race and ethnicity and supporting community health workers. But it was unclear if they’ll adopt a declaration. Lawmakers said they are considering it.
“In a very literal sense, racism is a public health crisis,” said Sen. Matthew Lesser, a Middletown Democrat who co-chairs the legislature’s Insurance Committee. “We’ve got to address that head on because we’ve seen huge gaps in Connecticut.”
Reiss said Lamont will work with lawmakers on health equity proposals, but more time may be needed to develop them.
“As the governor stated last week, there is more to do to address broader issues concerning racial and economic inequality and those complex and difficult issues need to be addressed in a thoughtful and deliberate manner,” Reiss said. “He looks forward to working with legislators and other stakeholders on those issues during the next regular session.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought Connecticut’s racial inequities into sharp focus.
Black residents here are 2 ½ times more likely to die from a coronavirus infection than whites. The death rate for Hispanics is 67% higher than for white residents.
People of color here are also more likely to work in high-risk, “essential” jobs, such as those in nursing homes, grocery stores and retail, to live in densely populated communities, and to have higher rates of pre-existing conditions like diabetes and asthma that are caused or worsened by systemic racism.
During the pandemic, residents in low income, predominantly minority neighborhoods have faced larger barriers to testing and other services. Until May, two-thirds of the state’s testing sites required a doctor’s note, and many people living in these communities have no insurance or primary care doctor to refer them.
“Declaring racism a public health issue, to me, demands and warrants that there has to be some policy changes,” the Rev. Robyn Anderson, director of the advocacy group Ministerial Health Fellowship, said. “It impedes people’s health, mentally and physically.”
A study by the Connecticut Health Foundation in January highlighted links between discrimination and “negative physical and mental health consequences” including depression, anxiety, hypertension, breast cancer, and giving birth preterm or having a low-birthweight baby.
“Research suggests that one way discrimination could lead to poorer health is through repeated activation of the body’s stress response system, which can have negative long-term physiological and psychological effects,” the foundation noted.
Nuchette Black-Burke, a town council member in Windsor, said she raised the local declaration to ignite action in her community. That includes a deeper exploration of inequities in health care, education, law enforcement, housing and economic development.
“Being a Black woman, every day when I go out there is a conversation I have to have with myself: How do I present? What am I doing? Where am I going? If I do this, is it going to be interpreted this way?” she said. “I also have two sons; one is a 14-year-old who is beginning to look more and more like a man.
“I wanted to share this with our town council to help them understand the constant self-talk that Black folks, that people of color have to go through each and every day contributes so much to their levels of stress.”
In Hartford, council members who unanimously backed the local proposal want the city to direct more resources to the health department and schools to tackle inequities.
Thomas Clarke II, the panel’s majority leader, called for more cultural competency training and de-escalation measures within the police department.
“When you talk about the inequity that we have experienced in communities of color … you can make the strong case that it really is due to racism,” he said. “So this is our way of calling it out, finally addressing it and looking for some reforms.”
More communities are weighing the declaration. Everette said she has been in touch with officials in New Haven, New Britain, Farmington, Glastonbury, Orange, Willimantic, Meriden and Manchester to provide research and guidance.
The local declarations are an important way to address issues that are unique to each town, she said, but she’s also hoping for action at the state level.
“In the best scenario, we’re going to have both,” she said.