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California Surgeon General: Systemic Racism Is Linked To COVID-19 Pandemic

Medical staff provide free COVID-19 virus antibody testing in observance of Juneteenth at the Faith Central Bible Church, in the predominately Black city of Inglewood, California, on June 19, 2020. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)
Medical staff provide free COVID-19 virus antibody testing in observance of Juneteenth at the Faith Central Bible Church, in the predominately Black city of Inglewood, California, on June 19, 2020. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

A new California rule requires everyone to wear face masks in public as more businesses and public spaces reopen in the state this week.

For some residents, the mandate is controversial even as COVID-19 hospitalizations are surging. California Surgeon General Dr. Nadine Burke Harris says public health officials are considering how to boost economic activity in the safest way possible.

“The goal of this is really around protecting Californians and protecting their health,” says Burke Harris, author of “The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity.”

In the past two months, seven top public health officials in California resigned after facing harassment over recommending the use of masks and other measures. Burke Harris says it’s a difficult time to serve as a public health officer.

The response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been “unfortunately politicized,” she says. Public health guidelines aren’t about politics, she says, but trying to reduce the number of cases and deaths.

“Our public health officers all across the state are working incredible hours, and it’s a really difficult time,” she says. “And I think that it’s really unfortunate that so many public health officers are facing harassment when they’re really showing up to try to protect the health and safety of everyday Californians.”

Everyone in California can help keep others safe by following public health guidelines, practicing social distancing and wearing face coverings, she says.

Like the rest of the nation, California is grappling with the death of George Floyd and racism on top of battling COVID-19. Burke Harris wrote a recent article titled “George Floyd’s Death is Killing Me” that outlines the two pandemics the U.S. faces: COVID-19 and systemic racism.

A through-line connects anti-racism protests and the disproportionate effect of COVID-19 on Back communities, she writes.

When individuals are exposed to repeated threats, particularly during critical development stages, these threats can activate their biological stress response, she says. When the biological stress response is activated too frequently or severely, this can lead to changes in the immune system, brain development or hormonal system — called a toxic stress response, she says.

It’s not a coincidence that Black and Brown people are dying at a higher rate from COVID-19, she says, and this connects to the protests against racial injustice.

“The ways in which Black and Brown folks are dying of racism are captured in a powerful and undeniable way in the video of George Floyd’s death,” she says. “But they’re also captured in the numbers of disparities that we are seeing in deaths from COVID-19 as a result of the impacts of racism on health.”

Anti-racist policies “that go across the board” including housing can address this racial inequality, she says, though it will take time to implement.

As California Surgeon General, Burke Harris is leading an initiative called ACEs Aware to help primary care doctors across the state understand how to recognize and address toxic stress response. The success of the program is measured by looking at satisfaction and experience for both patients and providers, and how many doctors take training for ACEs — which stands for adverse childhood experiences.

“Ultimately, what we’re driving to is improved health outcomes,” she says.

Parents can help their kids by teaching them how to take care of themselves through difficult times and be part of the solution, she says. A mother of four Black sons, Burke Harris says her family is discussing what the protests and racism mean.

She helps her kids “make meaning” of the protests by talking about how the movement aims to make positive change — and that they can participate. Letting her 4-year-old and 8-year-old sons paint Black Lives Matter signs and put them in the front yard gives her children “an opportunity to be part of the struggle,” she says.

“I think that it’s important for our kids in this moment not only to make meaning of what’s going on but also recognizing how they can participate affirmatively,” she says, “because otherwise, it can just feel scary.”

Cristina Kim produced this story and edited it for broadcast with Tinku RayAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on

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