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CORONAVIRUS Black health experts say surgeon general’s comments reflect lack of awareness of black community

“The Adams statement is, at best, irresponsible and, at worst, reflective of systemic structural racism.”

By Curtis Bunn

Black health care professionals are offering unsolicited advice for Surgeon General Jerome Adams after his much-publicized remarks about “drugs, tobacco and alcohol” and “big momma” related to the black community and the coronavirus: Watch your mouth.

At least that’s the view of Linda Goler Blount, the president and CEO of the Black Women’s Health Imperative in Washington, D.C., an organization that addresses the most pressing health concerns of African American women.

Blount, an epidemiologist, said she did not take offense to the way Adams responded last week to a question from Yamiche Alcindor of PBS. But his failure to lay out a framework for his thoughts has caused a stir that has lasted for days.

“He needs to be aware of how people interpret what physicians in particular have to say,” Blount told NBC News. “So he has to put his thoughts into context to prevent misleading interpretations.”

When asked by Alcindor about the disparity between the rate at which black Americans are contracting COVID-19 as opposed to othe racial groups, Adams said, “African-Americans and Latinos should avoid alcohol, drugs and tobacco.

“Do it for your abuela, do it for your granddaddy, do it for your big momma, do it for your pop-pop,” he said. “We need you to understand, especially in communities of color. We need you to step up and stop the spread so that we can protect those who are most vulnerable.”

Adams, 45, an anesthesiologist from St. Mary’s County, Maryland, became surgeon general in 2017. He once said that President Donald Trump was in better physical condition than him. Asthmatic, Adams said he does not go anywhere without his inhaler. He defended his language, saying he calls his grandmother “big momma” and can relate, as an African American, to the disparities in infection rates.

But Blount said: “There’s nothing wrong if that’s how he talks among his family. I didn’t take offense to the ‘big momma’ comment. But wait a minute: Why are you not personally outraged that you have some 40 percent or more people that have underlying, preventable chronic diseases? Why isn’t this a problem for you, and why aren’t you addressing that? He says it like it’s just a given that should be accepted.”

Adam’s call for the underserved to abide by stay-at-home orders was devoid of understanding or empathy, Blount said.

“And I get the message: ‘Stay at home.’ But, she said, “it comes across as if he’s lecturing when the fact is, 20 or 25 percent of blacks and Latinos have to get on a bus, get on a train and go some place to work on a job where they are in front of people. So understanding how life and the economy are organized (should) frame your comments in that context.”

Adams’ remarks come as health experts continue to highlight the disproportionate number of African Americans who are dying from coronavirus. As of Tuesday, there are more than 580,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the United States and more than 23,000 deaths associated with the disease, many of them African Americans.

In Wisconsin’s Milwaukee County, for example, African Americans make up 25 percent of the population, but 75 percent of the confirmed deaths.

For Dr. Henry Louis Taylor, Jr., a University of Buffalo professor and researcher, there isn’t much of a controversy. The surgeon general missed the mark. And it’s not what he said, but what he did not say.

“It is irresponsible to talk about the elimination of drugs and alcohol without talking about eliminating the neighborhood-based social determinants that produce drug and alcohol abuse,” Taylor told NBC News.

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