Surgeon general: 'You understand the anger'

Sarah Owermohle

There will likely be a new rash of coronavirus cases following widespread protests this weekend over racism and the death of George Floyd — but people’s concerns need to be heard, Surgeon General Jerome Adams said in an interview.

“I remain concerned about the public health consequences both of individual and institutional racism [and] people out protesting in a way that is harmful to themselves and to their communities,” Adams said in a phone call.

He was leaving a White House meeting with governors to discuss the protests that have rippled across the country after video footage showed a white Minneapolis police officer pinning Floyd, an African American, by his neck. Floyd died in police custody minutes later, after telling the officer that he could not breathe.

“Based on the way the disease spreads, there is every reason to expect that we will see new clusters and potentially new outbreaks moving forward,” Adams said.

While many protesters have worn masks and some have distributed hand sanitizer, hundreds and sometimes thousands of people have gathered in close proximity to protest police brutality over the past six days. It will be particularly important to double down on testing and personal protective gear across the states, said Adams, the onetime Indiana health commissioner, who is black.

The surgeon general has repeatedly raised the issue of racial disparities during the coronavirus outbreak. But he sparked controversy in April after a White House briefing where he urged communities of color to "step up" to fight the coronavirus "for your abuela" and "for your Big Mama." Critics said the remarks, which also included admonitions to avoid alcohol, tobacco and drugs, as racially insensitive.

In his interview with POLITICO, Adams praised the response of Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, whose administration has made masks available for protesters and encouraged testing. But Adams also expressed concern about the long-term consequence of dual crises — the pandemic and the impact of racism on communities of color.

Protests turned violent in dozens of cities this weekend as thousands of people expressed anger and frustration over police brutality and racism.

"You understand the anger, you hope that we can find ways that really can help people channel their anger into meaningful steps forward,” said Adams. “There is going to be a lot to do after this, even to try and get the communities of color back to where they need to be for people to be able to recover from Covid, and for people to be able to recover from the shutdown and to be able to prosper.”

Data shows that communities of color have been disproportionally impacted by Covid-19 deaths. The surgeon general pointed to Covid-19 disparities and other health care gaps among communities of color including maternal mortality rates and the opioid crisis, saying these issues and the frustration surfacing across the country are intermingled.

“It's on the top of my mind as a black man, as a father, as a brother, as a son,” Adams said.