Baltimore's former health commissioner on public health efforts amid protests after Freddie Gray's death

The public health ramifications of the protests unfolding across the country are a significant cause for concern, and looking back at the ways the protests against Freddie Gray's death in 2015 affected public health in Baltimore can help paint a picture of what to expect now, Baltimore's former health commissioner wrote in an opinion piece for The Washington Post.

Leana S. Wen, MD, an emergency physician and visiting professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health in Washington, D.C., writes although she worries about criminal justice reforms and systemic racism, her fears are magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Looking back to 2015, when protests broke out in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, Dr. Wen recalls that media coverage focused on the protests and destruction that followed, but she watched another scenario play out — one in which access to healthcare was stymied.

As clinics closed due to safety concerns, Dr. Wen and her colleagues worked with state and local officials to safely ferry healthcare staff and patients to facilities for care. Patients who required regular, life-saving treatments, such as dialysis, were afraid to go out and didn't know which health centers were open.

Dr. Wen's office received hundreds of calls, including ones from patients who did not know where to fill their prescriptions since their pharmacies had closed. They also received calls from people who did not have access to food as grocery stores in their area had closed. Dr. Wen and her team set up services to deliver prescriptions and transport people to areas where they could access food.

In addition, calls to mental health hotlines increased exponentially, as the grief, fear and tensions of the moment were brought to bear on the city's residents.

"What we experienced in Baltimore is going to be seen in cities all around the United States," Dr. Wen writes. "When access to health care and other essential services is disrupted, those who are already the most vulnerable suffer the most."

As protests rage across the country, public health efforts need to go beyond guidance to wear masks and use hand sanitizer. These efforts must include strengthening local health departments and community organizations so they can work effectively to make sure vulnerable citizens have access to healthcare, medications and food. Also, COVID-19 services need to be scaled up and targeted to underserved communities, she writes.


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