Virginia public health chief backtracks on opinions, expresses regret
The message came a day after Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin (R) issued a statement saying he was disappointed Greene had not ‘effectively communicated our mission’ after Greene said invoking racism alienates white people and suggested a genetic reason for disparities in black maternal mortality.
Greene, a retired Army colonel and Youngkin appointee who since taking office five months ago has clashed with his own experts on racial disparities and agency scientists over the coronavirus restrictions, did not apologize for his comments in the three-paragraph message. Greene, through a spokeswoman, declined an interview and did not respond to written questions on Saturday.
Health board chair Faye O. Prichard and longtime board member Jim Edmondson, both appointees by former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), said they think Greene should step down.
“My reaction is, too little too late,” Edmondson said on Saturday. “Damage done. You can’t say these things without meaning them.
They plan to address their concerns about Greene’s views at their regular quarterly town hall meeting on Thursday, which Greene is expected to attend.
Of the. Lamont Bagby (D-Henrico), chair of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, said the governor agreed to “a meeting” over Greene’s remarks, at the request of the caucus, but did not specify who would be there.
“We spoke briefly and will speak again to arrange the meeting,” Bagby said.
Youngkin’s spokeswoman Macaulay Porter declined to comment after receiving detailed questions about Greene and her statement.
Greene’s statement comes three days after The Post reported Greene’s view that racism is not a public health crisis, gun violence is a Democratic talking point and that it is not convinced that structural racism is a factor in black mothers and their babies dying at a much higher level than their white counterparts – a fact established by decades of research.
The story is based in part on interviews with Greene and Vanessa Walker Harris, the director of the health department’s office for maternal and child mortality, who said a The March meeting with Greene left her and her team traumatized and scared for their jobs.
State Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan (D-Richmond) said Greene’s memo was “gaslighting” and downplayed the impact of her questions on the link between racism and health outcomes.
“Based on my conversations with Department of Health employees, this has had a chilling effect on their ability to do their jobs to address health disparities,” she said.
Tension over role of racism in public health strains Virginia agency under Youngkin
Four employees who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on behalf of the agency said reading Greene’s opinions had demoralized them, would deepen the mistrust vulnerable communities already have in the government , which has been tested during the pandemic, and would politicize an agency that should be apolitical.
In a virtual meeting of several hundred health department employees on Friday, some set their computer screen backgrounds to solid blue with the message “I believe racism and gun violence are public health problems. #IsupportDrWalkerHarris,” according to three of the employees and a screenshot of the post.
Post articles and related coverage on Greene’s opinions were omitted from a daily compilation of stories sent to staff known as “VDH in the News”, usually a non-controversial summary of positive and negative, according to two employees.
Leaders of the department’s Office of Epidemiology, including State Epidemiologist Lilian Peake, held a “listening session” on Friday to “provide a safe space for all of our team members to express their thoughts and feelings. ‘ after hearing many of them talking about The Post article, according to an internal email.
They also reaffirmed that one of the core values of the office’s strategic plan is to “foster an environment…inclusive of age, race, sexual orientation, gender, religion, culture, ethnicity and nationality in order to overcome social and health inequalities…”
“We believe this value is fundamental to building respectful relationships with our colleagues and the communities we serve,” they wrote.
Youngkin appointed Greene as acting health commissioner early in the administration and dropped the term “interim” from his title in early April. A Temple University-trained doctor, Greene, 63, previously served as the local health director in northwest Virginia and urged the agency to focus on how to convince residents of hard-hit rural areas to get vaccinated against coronavirus.
He oversees a department with a budget of more than $800 million and around 3,800 full-time staff, many of whom were on the frontlines of the pandemic. The department is based in Richmond and coordinates with 35 local health districts, which track outbreaks, promote prevention to combat disease and conduct emergency preparedness training.
Greene serves at the governor’s will, until the next regular legislative session in January, when his nomination is subject to confirmation by state lawmakers, several of whom have publicly questioned his leadership this week.
It is planned on Thursday to make a general report on the agency to the Board of Health, which helps oversee the mission of the Department of Health and approves regulations related to health care. The 15 board members were nominated for staggered terms by Democratic governors, including Prichard, Edmondson and two others whose terms expire at the end of the month, giving Youngkin a chance to appoint four new members.
Prichard said Greene’s statements contradict the agency’s mission.
“It conflicts with everything the Board of Health has proposed to move Virginia forward and achieve our health goals,” she said. “We’re definitely going to want a lot of answers.”