U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams on Friday singled out African Americans and Latino communities at the White House COVID-19 press briefing, telling them to refrain from “alcohol, tobacco and drugs” to protect their health during the pandemic.
Minutes later, after a challenge from a reporter, he said his comments were “not meant to be offensive” and that the advice was for all Americans.
Adams made the remarks while addressing the “alarming,” disproportionate death rate suffered by people of color in the U.S. from COVID-19, which he attributed to behavioral, medical and “social” issues. In Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, Black people are 25% of the population but almost 50% of the confirmed coronavirus cases and 75% of the deaths, he noted.
He told Black and Latino communities to “step it up” and follow social distancing and hand-washing guidelines, and “avoid alcohol, tobacco and drugs.” Do it, “if not for yourself, then for your abuela, do it for your grandaddy, do it for your big mama, do it for your pop pop,” Adams urged.
He also addressed medical issues among people of color, such as high blood pressure and asthma — and “social ills” likely linked to higher death rates. Adams pulled an asthma inhaler out of his pocket, which he said he has been “carrying around” for 40 years “out of fear of having a fatal asthma attack.”
The “chronic burden of medical ills is likely to make people of color, especially, less resilient to the ravages of COVID-19,” Adams warned. “And it’s possibly, in fact, likely, that the burden of social ills is also contributing.”
He noted, for example, that many African Americans and Latinos do not have jobs that allow them to telework to remain at home, making social distancing or sheltering at home difficult. People of color also tend to live in more crowded communities and in multi-generational housing, he added.
“Some people online ... are already offended by that language and the idea that behaviors may be leading to these high death rates,” noted Alcindor. She asked Adams to respond to “people who might be offended by the language you used.”
Adams said he uses the language in his own family and that he didn’t mean to offend anyone.
“I have a Puerto Rican brother-in-law. I call my granddaddy ‘Granddaddy.’ I have relatives who call their grandparents ‘Big Mama.’ So that was not meant to be offensive,” he said. “That’s the language we use, and that I use, and we need to continue to target our outreach to those communities.”
Even though Adams said the message was targeted to communities of color, he then added that it’s “critically important that they understand it’s not just about them ... we need everyone — black, brown, white, whatever color you are — to follow the president’s guidelines.”
Alcindor then asked if he would recommend that all Americans avoid “tobacco, alcohol and drug use” that would put them at risk. He responded: “Absolutely.” He added: “All Americans need to avoid these substances at all times.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, then moved to the lectern to speak up for Adams.
“Jerome, you did it beautifully. You can’t do it any better than that,” said Fauci. “I know Jerome personally. I can just testify that he made no — not even a hint of being — offensive at all with that comment.”
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