By Marion Filler
As the first black male to serve as U.S. Surgeon General, Jerome Adams is acutely aware of a health care gap between people of color and white Americans.
“We didn’t need COVID to tell us we had disparities. But it shone a light on it in a way that we haven’t had seen across the country and across the planet in my lifetime,” the 45-year-old doctor told a virtual panel sponsored by the Morris County Hispanic American Chamber of Commerce (MCHACC).
“As I look out my window at the Capitol, in some communities I see that over 50 percent of Hispanic children have been exposed to the Corona virus,” Adams said, adding that pregnant Hispanic women have been exposed at a higher rate, though he offered no statistics.
Low income, crowded housing, reliance on public transportation, and working conditions that do not allow social distancing are factors, he said.
“Only one in five African Americans and one in six Hispanics have jobs that allow them to work at home.”
Sidestepping the Trump Administration’s delayed response to the coronavirus, Adams shifted blame to a public health system that lacks real-time data collection and subsequently “tends to drive the car by looking in the rear view mirror.”
His suggestions for curbing the pandemic right now:
Follow “the three Ws”: Wear your mask, Wash your hands, and Watch your distance.
Also, to avoid a “double whammy” in the fall, he urged the Hispanic community to take flu shots, and a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as available. It will be safe, the surgeon general asserted. Operation Warp Speed is a collaboration between public and private sectors, not a cutting of corners, he said.
Utilize community health centers such as Morristown’s Zufall Health, which offer free medical and dental care.
Keep children up to date with vaccinations. Adams noted the communities of color are falling behind in this respect and was concerned about trending “vaccine hesitancy” spawned by misinformation.
Check coronavirus.gov every week for updates, links to resources, and FAQs that are available in several languages including Spanish.
Come home safely from school by changing clothing, washing face, hands, and arms or better still, taking a shower. Leave the book bag outside, just bring in the books.
Trish O’Keefe, president of Morristown Medical Center, addresses Zoom session of the Morris County Hispanic American Chamber of Commerce, August 2020. Screen shot by Marion Filler
Other members of the 10-person panel included Trish O’Keefe, R.N., president of the Morristown Medical Center and vice president of the Atlantic Health System; and Dr. Diana Contreras, chair of OB/GYN at MMC.
They described the hospital’s rapid response to communicate with the Hispanic community during the pandemic surge, and pending improvements.
“Since early January, we were planning for the pandemic, to make sure our teams were prepared,” said O’Keefe. “We started to see the influx of patients in the beginning of March, but what we did not expect to see was the disproportionate impact on the Hispanic and Latino community.”
A Spanish-English hotline was set up within days, social media spread the message, and two public service messages were created and publicized in cooperation with Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty.
During the height of the pandemic, Atlantic Health received more than 10,000 calls for assistance from non-English speakers, and 90 percent of whom were Hispanic, according to O’Keefe.
With the assistance of translators, telehealth usage almost doubled to treat patents in place rather than in the hospital.
“Morristown absolutely rose to the occasion,” added Contreras, “We embraced the situation and very quickly and decided that we had to move in a digital direction for our pregnant patients.”
Anticipating the possibility of a surge in the fall, she described how MMC is again ahead of the game.
Among other things, it’s expanding the telehealth system and adding translators. “We are trying to have video visits and monitoring in a technologically advanced way,” said Contreras. “Language and technology should not be a problem.”
By de-regulating telemedicine, the federal government has facilitated health care for essential workers who cannot take time off, Adams said.
The surgeon general said the government also supports a nationwide network of community health centers in provide free services in low income neighborhoods. A recent allocation of $15 billion to Medicaid providers and $10 billion to safety net hospitals will directly benefit low income communities, he said.
And now that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention require testing centers and hospitals to collect and report data on race, ethnicity, and zip codes, it will help the federal government “better understand and protect our most vulnerable populations,” said Adams, an anesthesiologist and former commissioner of health for Indiana.
As the nation’s 20th surgeon general, he holds the rank of Vice Admiral in the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, overseeing operations of more than 6,000 uniformed health officers in nearly 800 locations around the world.
Citing the president’s impeachment, a social justice movement, and a public health crisis that has roiled the country, Adams acknowledged this is a unique time.
“We all need to understand that politics are inextricably a part of this, but we all need to do everything we can to keep politics out of it.”
Adams alternately has been criticized for not asserting himself more forcefully during the pandemic, and for sticking too closely to President Trump’s coronavirus agenda.
His concluding comments at this week’s webinar contained his only mention of the president by name.
“Health should be non-partisan,” said Adams.
“If you read the headlines, I’m called ‘Trump’s Surgeon General.’ I was appointed by the president, for which I’m very grateful, and confirmed by bipartisan vote. But I want you to know that I work for the American people. I work for you. I will continue to fight for you regardless of politics and who you vote for.”