May 24, 2024

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HENRICO, Va. — Virginia Board of Health members on Thursday told Health Commissioner Colin Greene that his comments dismissing evidence of structural racism in health outcomes and calling gun violence a political talking point damaged the health department, its employees and marginalized communities.

After questioning Greene for nearly an hour, the board passed a resolution expressing members’ “embarrassment” over his views and advised him not to publicly question “basic scientific facts regarding disparities.”

The reprimand came just over a week after Greene’s answers to questions about a tense meeting with his employees who work with vulnerable mothers and infants were published by The Washington Post — comments that elicited raw feedback from Black lawmakers and a pointed statement from Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R), who this week told reporters he had not decided whether to fire Greene.

“You did such damage to where we’ve all been striving in medicine,” said Holly S. Puritz, a board member and Norfolk-based obstetrician gynecologist. “You can’t discuss maternal mortality, intellectually or scientifically … without discussing racism because, correcting for socioeconomic status, it is still higher.”

Greene, previously a local health director in the northern Shenandoah Valley, has for years balked at talk of structural racism, interviews and records obtained through the state’s open records law show. On Thursday, he attributed his personal views to a lack of political experience.

“These past five months have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that I need a lot of assistance in dealing with the world of state-level politics and media,” said Greene, who pledged to listen more moving forward.

Virginia public health chief expresses ‘regret’ in disrespecting staff

He backed off previous comments questioning a link between structural racism and health disparities, especially maternal and infant deaths, and reversed course in saying the health department could discuss racism. He previously discouraged this in interviews with The Post, and agency meetings, calling the word “politically charged” and alienating for White people, contradicting public health experts who say acknowledging racism in systems is a first step to dismantling vestiges of Jim Crow.

The latest dust-up is not the first time Greene has espoused these views.

In 2019, he criticized then-Health Commissioner M. Norman Oliver after Oliver sent a note to staff reacting to news that Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, was embroiled in a blackface scandal. The note, Greene said in an email to Oliver, amounted to an “apparent blanket condemnation of the white race,” and was “extremely demoralizing to many on my staff.”

Two years earlier, Greene interrupted a Virginia Tech professor mid-speech to dismiss conclusions from data showing that Black and Brown people are disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards and environmental pollution.

“That touched him off, didn’t know who he was, he just blurted out, ‘I resent you even coming here,’” Mike Ellerbrock, a professor of environmental economics and ethics, recalled in an interview Wednesday about a talk he had given for health department employees at the Sheraton Roanoke.

Ellerbrock had documented the exchange in a contemporaneous email, which was obtained by The Post.

“He didn’t not want to hear that there was a racial dimension to equitable access to health care. His cop-out was to blame me, that I came there to shame White people,” he said. “I was just trying to show the data, the data are clear.”

Greene, through health department spokeswoman Maria Reppas, declined to comment. He did not speak to reporters at Thursday’s meeting, and has repeatedly declined interview requests since last week. In a note to staff Friday, he said he regretted that his comments caused staff to feel disrespected.

The 12 members of the 15-member Board of Health attending Thursday, all of whom were appointed by Democrats, voted for the resolution, an unprecedented reprimand of a sitting commissioner. The board does not have the authority to fire or even supervise the commissioner, who is appointed by the governor.

Youngkin, who appointed Greene, said Wednesday that racism is a factor in health disparities and that his administration will work to reduce them.

“Racism exists,” Youngkin said. “It exists, it existed for thousands of years. It will continue to exist. It doesn’t mean that we have to succumb and allow it.”

Youngkin described Greene as capable and said his comments failed to communicate the administration’s beliefs, which also have elicited criticism from those who see the legacy of racism and racist policies in Virginia’s institutions. Youngkin made banning the teaching of critical race theory, an intellectual movement that examines the way policies and laws perpetuate systemic racism, and “divisive concepts” the first executive order of his administration.

“I’m really disappointed in his inability to communicate this message,” Youngkin told reporters. “And so he’s got, he has got to prove that he can do this job. I believe he can. And we’re going to support him to prove that.”

In an interview, Youngkin said he put “milestones” in place to determine whether Greene was making progress, but did not elaborate on what they are.

Five Republican legislators — including House Speaker Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) and three members assigned by Youngkin to work with Health and Human Resources during the transition — declined to comment or did not respond to messages seeking comment about Greene.

Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears, in a tweet Saturday, said Black maternal and infant mortality is a priority for the administration, but did not mention Greene.

“We WILL continue to address maternal mortality & infant morbidity rates in the Commonwealth, which are shockingly 3X higher for Black women. It is atrocious for an advanced nation; women are needlessly dying! Addressing the causes is a priority for VA,” she tweeted.

Linda Hines, a health board member and registered nurse who works with low-income people, said she sees the consequences of racism daily in, for example, access to care and how providers treat patients.

“If we don’t address the crisis it will never improve,” she said. “We are in a crisis. Yes, racism has existed in this country forever, that that’s not an excuse to not address it.”

Greene, during the board’s questioning, pledged to “direct VDH to examine specific measurable, meaningful outcomes to address [disparities].” He said he previously targeted “racism” to avoid being divisive, but said one can’t talk about disparities without talking about racism.

“Racism at all levels is most certainly a factor in a wide range of public health outcomes and disparities. It is also not the only factor,” Greene said. “America has been dealing with racism all my life and will likely continue to deal with it, unfortunately, for some time to come.”

Puritz, who is a past chair of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, said it’s Greene’s job to educate people who may be turned off by the mention of racism. She said the ACOG website lists 56 citations about the effects of racism on health disparities.

“Racism is embedded in our society,” she said. “It doesn’t mean that you are a racist. It doesn’t mean that I am a racist. … And to not recognize that, I feel very strongly, is to do a great injustice as a leader.”

Benita Miller, a board member and dentist, asked Greene, a Temple-University educated physician and 30-year Army veteran, what he would do to make sure his words represent “the essence of all of us, from those who have the most to those who have the least.”

“I’m going to keep on learning,” he said.

Gregory S. Schneider contributed to this report.

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