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Va. health chief regrets race comments; Youngkin says he 'has got to prove' himself

Posted at 1:33 PM, Jun 21, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-21 18:18:48-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- The leader overseeing public health for the Commonwealth of Virginia told state health employees he regretted comments he made to the Washington Post may have caused them to feel "discounted or disrespected."

Dr. Colin Greene, State Health Commissioner for the Virginia Department of Health, came under fire last week when the Washington Post reported he downplayed racial disparities in health, rejected racism as a public health crisis, and wanted to "start fresh" to investigate high rates of Black maternal and infant mortality.

Those comments sparked outrage from some state lawmakers and "disappointment" from Governor Glenn Youngkin (R - Virginia).

The article added Greene believed "racism" to be a politically-charged word and the term "gun violence" as a Democratic talking point.

Some state lawmakers, medical researchers, and activists denounced Greene's remarks and cited years of data proving a correlation between race and poor health outcomes.

Two days after the piece was published, Greene sent a letter to his colleagues at the health department, dated June 17.

CBS 6 obtained the message through a Freedom of Information Act request:

"I'm sure many of you have read or heard of the recent article in the Washington Post, alleging that I believe racism is not a factor in public health outcomes and disparities. Let me be clear: I am fully aware that racism at many levels is a factor in a wide range of public health outcomes and disparities across the Commonwealth and the United States. I also deeply regret that any of this has caused you to feel discounted or disrespected; such has never and will never be my intent," Greene wrote.

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Greene added it was a privilege to serve as Health Commissioner and he looked forward to continuing work to eliminate disparities.

Vice-Chair of the Virginia State Board of Health, Dr. Wendy Klein, said the board, which oversees policy and planning for the health department, has called for an "adequate response" from the Commissioner.

"One that reflects the indisputable fact that health disparities experienced by minority populations have been documented for decades and arise in great part from social determinants of health that are grounded in long-standing systemic inequities rooted in racism and discrimination," Klein said. "Dr. Greene needs to actively and substantively address his own blatant bias. Unless he can do that, he clearly is not fit to address these critical issues, nor to lead."

CBS 6 asked Governor Youngkin, who appointed Greene to his position, and his office on multiple occasions how the governor would hold Greene accountable and did not receive a direct answer.

Youngkin had previously expressed "anger" and "disappointment" in how Greene communicated a message that clashed with his administration's mission to close health gaps but did not say what course of action he would take with the Commissioner.

While speaking with reporters Tuesday, CBS 6 asked Youngkin again if he would remove Greene, a call expressed by a number of state lawmakers.

"I have not made a decision with Dr. Greene," Youngkin responded. "I believe that Dr. Greene is very capable. And as I said, I'm really disappointed in his inability to communicate this message. And so 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."

The governor said he talked with Greene after the article was published and believed Greene understands and acknowledges racial disparities.

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Governor Glenn Youngkin (R - Virginia)

During an interview Governor Youngkin's office offered to CBS 6 Monday to talk about the state budget, Youngkin expanded on the administration's goals for tackling race issues in health.

"I have been and continue to be angry by the health disparities that exist between Black mothers and white mothers. And in fact, for a Black woman to be at 2.3 times greater risk of dying during childbirth, it's just wholly unacceptable. And so, we've got to go to work right now in order to close those health gaps, those disparities and outcomes for Black mothers and Black children," Youngkin said. "We can do this. its accessibility, it's making sure that support is available, it's making sure that in fact, these Black mothers can in fact gain the access to care that they deserve. I'm disappointed that Dr. Green was unable to effectively communicate this message, which is very clear."

This is a developing story, so anyone with more information can email newstips@wtvr.com to send a tip.

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