Hamilton County faith and community leaders are urging the Hamilton County Commission to better address racial and ethnic health disparities as the commissioners look for a new administrator for the health department.
Speaking during the Wednesday commission meeting, the Rev. Ternae Jordan Sr., senior pastor of Mt. Canaan Baptist Church, said the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted and worsened health disparities.
"We realize that as we move into a new leadership with our Hamilton County Health Department, we as a community want to challenge this community and we want to challenge our health department that we really focus on the issues that are happening in our Black and brown communities," Jordan said.
The county health department will come under new leadership this month after Becky Barnes, the current administrator, announced she would retire on Sept. 10.
Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger said an interim administrator will lead the department until someone is hired. A number of candidates have applied, and the job opening closes Sunday, he said.
ExploreTNhealth, an initiative created by the Tennessee Hospital Association and the Hospital Industry Data Institute, tracks health data at the ZIP code level to understand factors that can influence a person's health. Some experts believe a person's ZIP code offers a better prediction of their health than their genetic code.
The lowest ranked ZIP code in the state for health outcomes is in Shelby County.
In Hamilton County, the 37410 ZIP code, which represents Alton Park, ranks 599 out of 600 ZIP codes in Tennessee for health outcomes. The 37407 ZIP code, which represents Clifton Hills, ranks 598.
Just a few miles away, the 37350 ZIP code on Lookout Mountain ranks as the top ZIP code in the state for health outcomes.
In 2019, the county health department released its "Picture of Our Health" report, which offered an overview of community health trends using local, state and federal data. The data showed that Black residents in Hamilton County are more likely than whites to die or get sick from certain health conditions, including diabetes, heart disease, cancer, stroke, high blood pressure and kidney disease, according to the report. Hamilton County also has a higher percentage of African American and Black residents than the state and country as a whole.
One of the key takeaways of the report was the need to reduce health disparities.
LaDarius Price, community outreach manager at Cempa Community Care, said leaders must do more to confront the needs of residents. The next "Picture of Our Health" report is expected in 2023.
"Black and brown communities do not receive equitable health care within our county and our city," Price said. "There are numerous social determinants of health that are barriers to us having access to proper health care. I live with the weight of, will the next generation have to deal with the same thing that my ancestors dealt with in a lack of access? You have to spend time building a relationship with us. You have to hire people who look like us. You have to give us seats at the table where decisions are being made concerning us."
The "social determinants of health" Price referenced can include someone's ability to access health care, as well as their income, education and physical environment, such as place of work or neighborhood. These factors can heavily influence whether a person gets sick or dies from certain diseases, as experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic when those who could not work from home or who had underlying conditions were more likely to get sick or die from the virus.
The latest census data showed 17.5% of Hamilton County residents are Black, though COVID-19 data shows Black residents account for 27% of local deaths from the virus.
The Rev. William Terry Ladd III, pastor of First Baptist Church, asked the county commission to allocate funds, especially stimulus dollars distributed to local governments, to address local disparities.
"The health of the underserved citizens of Hamilton County is not a partisan issue," Ladd said. "The health of the marginalized citizens of Hamilton County is not a political issue. The health of underserved and marginalized citizens of Hamilton County is a people issue."
Commissioner Warren Mackey, D-Chattanooga, requested Ladd and the others who spoke about these issues present the commission with a detailed list of things the elected officials could do or focus on to address the issue.
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