Now Viewing: Public and Community Health

In West Baltimore, Physical Distancing Was a Way of Life Before COVID-19

Jun 1, 2020, 10:00 AM, Posted by Yolanda Ogbolu

Further physical distancing during COVID-19 has made us find creative and generous ways to strengthen connections.

Illustration of a family.

Imagine what it’s like to live on a block where elderly neighbors are bolted behind their front doors for fear of venturing out. Where parents worry daily about safety, so they resist letting children play in the neighborhood. Where more than half of the houses lie empty.

These images are not consequences of life under a pandemic. This was life pre-COVID-19 for the Baltimore neighborhood where I grew up and now work as a nurse researcher.  

For the past year, my research team at the University of Maryland, the Black Mental Health Alliance, the PATIENTS program, and B’more for Healthy Babies at Promise Heights, with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, has been listening to residents of two disadvantaged neighborhoods in West Baltimore. Residents told us they were “self-isolating” from family, neighbors and the community to cope with living in a neighborhood where they don’t feel supported, safe, or connected.

As one resident put it: “A lot of things scare us...it makes us not want to allow our kids to go to the recs that open because we fear that a drive by [shooting] or...standing in the doorway you can get shot.”

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How the Future of Work May Impact Our Well-Being

May 15, 2020, 9:45 AM, Posted by Paul Tarini

COVID-19 has rapidly compounded problems shift workers and gig economy contractors face, with implications for individual, family, and community health. What can we do to advance health equity in this new reality? Apply for funding to help us explore.

A man driving a car.

Editor's Note: The health impacts of our rapidly changing work environment are often overlooked. Since 2018, when this post was first published, we reported on the health equity implications of unstable incomes, unpredictable schedules, and lack of access to paid sick leave. In the wake of COVID-19, these questions about health equity are more important than ever. See what we’ve learned, and apply for funding to explore what the next five to 15 years may hold for workers.

When her regular job hours were cut, Lulu, who is in her 30s and lives in New York, couldn’t find a new full-time job. Instead she now has to contend with unsteady income and an erratic schedule juggling five jobs from different online apps to make ends meet. Cole, in his first week as a rideshare driver in Atlanta, had to learn how to contend with intoxicated and belligerent passengers threatening his safety. Diana signed up to help with what had been described as a “moving job” on an app that links workers with gigs. When she arrived, she had to decide whether it was safe for her to clean up what looked to her like medical waste.

Work is a powerful determinant of health. As these stories about taxi, care, and cleaning work from a 2018 report show, it is a central organizing feature of our lives, our families, our neighborhoods, and our cities. And work—its schedules, demands, benefits, and pay—all formally and informally shape our opportunities to be healthy.

But the world of work is rapidly changing. Job instability and unpredictable earnings are a fact of life for millions. Regular schedules are disappearing. With “predictive scheduling,” a retail worker today is essentially on call, making everything from booking child care to getting a haircut impossible until the work schedule arrives. Health and other fringe benefits are less often tied to the job. Nearly six in ten low-wage workers today have no paid sick leave. Two-thirds lack access to employer-based health care benefits.

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Caring for Mental Health in Communities of Color During COVID-19

May 5, 2020, 9:45 AM, Posted by Dwayne Proctor

Lack of access to testing, fear of being profiled while wearing face masks, and other issues are increasing toxic stress and straining mental health in communities of color. Learn what one leader is doing about it.

Man with hand on forehead.

One of the most troubling aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic is how it is exacerbating long-standing and deeply rooted inequities in communities of color. Health disparities stemming from structural racism have contributed to COVID-19’s devastating toll on blacks and Latinos in America. Often overlooked is how heightened stress from this heavy burden is impacting mental health.

Yolo Akili Robinson, a recipient of the RWJF Award for Health Equity, is swiftly responding to this new reality the pandemic has created. As the executive director and founder of Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective (BEAM), he leads his colleagues in training health care providers and community activists, as well as non-mental health professionals (family members, peers, etc.) to address mental health needs in communities of color. Robinson is witnessing firsthand how lack of access to testing and fear of profiling while wearing face masks, among other issues are increasing toxic stress and straining mental health.

In the following Q&A, Robinson shares insights about the impact and implications of COVID-19 on mental health within communities of color.

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The Plague Doctors: Imagining the Pandemics of the Future

Apr 16, 2020, 9:45 AM, Posted by Karen Lord

An acclaimed author reflects on the startling connections between her fictional story on a pandemic and our current reality.

Scientists in protective clothing holding test tubes in lab setting.

In the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's (RWJF) first-ever book of fiction, Take Us to a Better Place, published earlier this year, Dr. Karen Lord and nine other writers use the power of fiction to help us imagine paths that may lead to a healthier, better place for all--and those that may lead us astray.  

In her short story The Plague Doctors, Dr. Lord envisioned what life on a small island during a pandemic might look like. Now, she reflects on foreseeing some of today’s challenges and solutions in her latest blog post.

Note: The following post originally appeared on the William Temple Foundation Blog and has been republished with permission. 

Last year, I was asked to write a story about the future of health. Speculating about the future is my job, but for something this specific and important, I asked Dr. Adrian Charles to be my advisor for all things medical. We chose that perennial favourite of history and fiction—a pandemic—never guessing that within weeks of the story’s publication, history would become present, and fiction real life.

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Incarceration Rates: A Key Measure of Health in America

Apr 2, 2020, 1:00 PM, Posted by Carolyn Miller, Douglas Yeung

Mass incarceration is a pervasive problem that undermines health and health equity for individuals, families and communities. That’s why we have included it in the 35 measures RWJF is using to track progress toward becoming a country that values and promotes health everywhere, for everyone.

American flag behind barbed wire fence.

As coronavirus sweeps our nation it has brought deep-seated health inequities, including those linked to incarceration, to the forefront. Overcrowding and poor sanitation are putting prisoners at risk now more than ever. Persistent, widespread reports that guards and prisoners are testing positive for COVID-19 are especially alarming, and a sobering reminder that quarantines are nearly impossible among incarcerated populations. To address this, many jurisdictions are releasing select prisoners.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) has long recognized how incarceration adversely affects health and health equity for prisoners as well as families and communities. With some 2.2 million adults and youth in juvenile detention facilities, prisons, and jails, the United States incarcerates many more people—and a higher percentage of our population—than any other nation in the world. There is widespread agreement that incarceration has adverse effects on health and health equity, not just for prisoners themselves but also for families and communities. That’s why, in 2018, RWJF included it among 35 illustrative measures we are using to track our progress toward building a Culture of Health in America—that is, becoming a country that values health everywhere, for everyone.

The measures linked to RWJF’s Action Framework are intended to be viewed together to identify priorities for investment and collaboration, and to understand progress being made toward realizing our vision. We are also considering the impact each individual measure has on efforts to build a Culture of Health. Because mass incarceration is a pervasive problem that undermines health and health equity, tracking it allows us to examine how it compounds the persistent challenges associated with achieving health equity nationwide and affects communities.

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Handwashing to Slow the Coronavirus Pandemic

Mar 12, 2020, 12:00 PM

Among several steps to prevent the spread of coronavirus is one we can act on several times a day: frequently and thoroughly washing our hands. But how frequent and how thorough? And what about those whose living conditions make handwashing anything but easy?

Young boy washes his hands at the bathroom sink.

The simple act of handwashing has always been an important factor in preventing the spread of disease. As the coronavirus gains traction, it’s all the more critical. But a quick splash of water and perfunctory spritz of soap is nowhere near sufficient to keep the virus at bay, if you’ve been exposed. Now is the time to be sure we’re washing often enough and doing it right.

With that in mind, we want to share some resources. First, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers very specific guidance as to how often. Experts there say we should wash our hands:

  • Before, during, and after preparing food
  • Before eating food
  • Before and after caring for someone at home who is sick with vomiting or diarrhea
  • Before and after treating a cut or wound
  • After using the toilet
  • After changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet
  • After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
  • After touching an animal, animal feed, or animal waste
  • After handling pet food or pet treats
  • After touching garbage

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Bringing the Research Home

Mar 12, 2020, 11:00 AM, Posted by Mona Shah, Priya Gandhi

RWJF is funding new research that evaluates housing policies. Long-standing and complex barriers keep safe and stable housing out of reach for too many. We are seeking research partners to investigate the impact of housing policies and broadly share lessons learned.

Boy plays at public park.

For millions of people in America, having a home is an obstacle and a financial burden. Too many live in residentially segregated neighborhoods isolated from opportunity, making it difficult to break out of poverty and overcome the adversity that comes with it. 

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) is offering funding for policy research aimed at overcoming deeply rooted problems related to housing stability and equity. We invite researchers, partnering with small cities or community-based organizations, to evaluate housing policies in hopes of turning up actionable lessons for other communities.

We Need Far-Ranging Solutions to Deeply Rooted Problems

RWJF president and CEO Richard Besser, MD, explained how safe and affordable housing supports positive outcomes across the lifespan—and how unsafe and insecure housing can deepen inequity and undermine a Culture of Health. Where we live can make it easier or harder for us to access opportunities: to get a good education, to have transportation options to living-wage jobs, to afford and have access to nutritious food; and to enjoy active lifestyles.

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Community Health Resolutions for a New Decade

Jan 21, 2020, 1:45 PM, Posted by Oktawia Wojcik

Five things your community can do to ensure healthier, more equitable 2020s for all.

Group dancing in the street.

Have you noticed that most New Year’s resolutions are about developing healthier lifestyles? Most people want to eat better, exercise more, and find time for themselves. These are all worthy pursuits. But a few weeks into our new decade, for many, these resolutions will start to fade.

At the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, we believe that good health is significantly determined by forces outside of ourselves—our health is greatly influenced by the places where we live, learn, work, and play. Having opportunities to get a good education and stable employment is foundational to our well being. Access to affordable housing and healthy foods, and feeling safe in our neighborhoods all create opportunities to help us live our healthiest lives.

This made me wonder: why not adopt community-wide New Year resolutions? Because fostering healthier communities sets individuals up for success!

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New Year, New Nutrition Facts Label

Jan 9, 2020, 10:00 AM, Posted by Jamie Bussel

The Nutrition Facts label just got its first big makeover in 20 years. Learn why the updates will be a game-changer for parents and families.

For many of us, January 1 brings New Year’s resolutions—and those resolutions often have something to do with a renewed commitment to better health. As we all know, of course, these resolutions can sometimes lose steam after a few months...or even weeks...or sometimes just days. Fortunately, for those of us who have made commitments to eat healthier in 2020, we’re all getting a hand to ensure those resolutions can stick for the long-term.

We’re all familiar with the Nutrition Facts label. This is the label that appears on billions of food and beverage products, giving us the lowdown on how healthy (or not so healthy) items are based on metrics like calories, fat, sugar, salt, carbohydrates, protein, and various vitamins and minerals. The label has been mandatory under a federal law enacted in 1990.

On January 1, an updated Nutrition Facts label took effect covering all food and beverage products from manufacturers with more than $10 million in sales (most manufacturers with less than $10 million in annual sales get an additional year to comply). This milestone is a long time coming—the previous label had been in effect for 20 years and it’s been six years since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration first proposed updates. RWJF submitted comments in support of the proposed changes, which will empower consumers and families to make healthier purchasing decisions.

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Small Business, Big Impact: The Untapped Opportunity to Advance Health and Equity

Nov 25, 2019, 10:00 AM, Posted by Rhett Buttle

New report shows that small businesses create jobs and wealth and are imperative to healthy, thriving and equitable communities. Small businesses represent tremendous untapped potential to promote health equity and create opportunities for everyone to live healthier lives.

Four women laugh around a table in a coffee shop.

On a recent trip to Ferguson, Missouri, I visited a locally owned coffee shop that was filled with people working on laptops, visiting with friends, reading and studying. The walls were covered in fliers with community news and people were connected with neighbors. Sound familiar? It’s like thousands of other coffee shops. Across America, there are businesses like these where the owners and employees have their fingers on the pulse of what’s going on in the neighborhood.  

Small businesses of all types are in just about every community in the United States—in fact, companies with fewer than 100 employees make up 98 percent of all businesses in America and more than 43 percent are in low-income communities. They are helping to create healthy, equitable communities through the assets, income and jobs they create. People walk in their doors every day and share information or ask for advice—from barber shops and hair salons, to hardware stores and corner stores, to accounting firms and yoga studios.  

For those of us working to create a Culture of Health and advance equity, small businesses and their leaders could be ideal partners—so why don’t we engage them more often? 

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