CDC Declares Racism a Serious Public Health Threat

Marcia Frellick

April 09, 2021

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Thursday declared racism a serious public health threat and outlined steps it will take to address it.

"[I]t affects the health of our entire nation," CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, MPH, said in a statement.

The CDC is the largest public health group to make that statement but joins many other groups that have done the same. The American Public Health Association says that more than 170 local and state leaders and public health entities have declared racism a public health crisis or emergency.

One of the most visible examples currently is found in the pandemic, which, because of racism, has disproportionately affected people of color through structural barriers, Walensky said. People from ethnic and racial minority groups are at greater risk of getting COVID-19 and of dying from it.

As Medscape Medical News previously reported, Harvard medical school researchers found that healthcare workers of color were more likely to care for patients with suspected or confirmed COVID-19, more likely to report using inadequate protective gear, and nearly twice as likely as white colleagues to test positive for the virus.

The CDC listed some ways it will address racism. First, Walensky said, the agency is using federal COVID-19 funding to invest in communities of color, as well as other disproportionately affected groups, to address healthcare gaps.

The CDC also added a new section to its website dedicated to racism and health.

"The data show that racial and ethnic minority groups, throughout the United States, experience higher rates of illness and death across a wide range of health conditions, including diabetes, hypertension, obesity, asthma, and heart disease, when compared to their White counterparts," Walensky writes in a commentary on the site,

She said that the CDC will also continue to study social determinants' effect on health outcomes and racism's effect on health.

AMA Praise

The American Medical Association (AMA), which declared racism a public health threat in November, praised the CDC's statement on Thursday.

"The AMA applauds the CDC for formally recognizing racism as a public health threat, and elevating and sharing the work of the AMA through its new Racism and Health initiative," AMA President Susan R. Bailey, MD, said in a statement. "The AMA's House of Delegates [HOD] recognized racism as a public health threat in 2020, and will continue pushing for anti-racist policies and practices so that all people have the power, resources, and opportunities to reach their full health potential."

New policy adopted by the HOD in November 2020 recognized racism on several levels: systemic racism, or the structural and legalized system that results in differential access to healthcare services; cultural racism, or the harmful stereotypes portrayed in culturally shared media and experiences; and interpersonal racism, or implicit and explicit racial prejudice.

This week, as Medscape Medical News reported, a coalition of Black physicians met with AMA leaders to discuss the urgent need for antiracism initiatives in medicine to hold the association accountable after its journal JAMA released a now-deleted podcast labeled by many as racist and misinformed.

Marcia Frellick is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. She has previously written for the Chicago Tribune, Science News, and, and was an editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, the Cincinnati Enquirer, and the St. Cloud (Minnesota) Times. Follow her on Twitter at @mfrellick.

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