Racism is now officially a public health crisis in Multnomah County.
County commissioners unanimously approved the declaration Thursday, March 8 — a signal of the board's priorities for policy and spending as Chair Deborah Kafoury prepares to release her $3 billion executive budget plan on April 22.
"The disparities in social conditions that different communities face are stark, egregious and persistent. But they are not intractable or inevitable," said Kafoury during the virtual meeting.
"I'm eager to dive into the next steps ahead of us," she said, "especially as we design our COVID-19 recovery strategy."
While the four-page resolution doesn't come with any money attached, the proclamation calls on Multnomah County to continue implementing its Workforce Equity Strategic Plan, Community Health Improvement Plan and Climate Justice Initiative.
The policy also calls on decision-makers to collect and analyze data, and to ensure such data "is collected in a trauma-informed, culturally appropriate manner." Officials say the new public health lens will be used to address local death and disease rates, the county's response to the pandemic and the rise of gun violence within the community.
"We have been doing this work and having this lens that racism is a public health crisis for years," said Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson. "But it is also important, I think, to lift up that work and to name it."
"This is a moment in time where we can demonstrate our commitment through our actions," agreed Commissioner Lori Stegmann, who represents east Portland and Gresham.
Among those speaking in favor of the resolution were Ebony Clarke, interim director of the county health department, and Public Health Director Jessica Guernsey.
Clarke called racism a social determinant of health that "hurts all of us."
Guernsey highlighted that COVID-19 was the fourth-leading cause of death in Multnomah County in 2020, and that all-cause morality jumped countywide last year compared with the prior five-year period. But the historical administration of public health itself was not free from blame, she added.
"Public health as a practice has knowingly withheld care, community and cultural history and ignored whole communities," Guernsey said.
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