Buffalo, NY

The day after Buffalo suffered the largest mass shooting in its history, teams of emergency volunteers and mental health counselors arrived on the scene, offering emotional support and distributing food.

The response was robust and quick, but there was one big problem.

“The community didn’t feel comfortable going up the stairs to the center because they saw a large group of white people,” said Kelly Wofford, Erie County’s director of health equity.

A white gunman had deliberately opened fire on the only grocery store in a predominantly black neighborhood, a Tops supermarket, on a busy Saturday in May. Eleven of the 13 people shot dead were black, including the 10 killed. Authorities called the shooting racially motivated.

“In any other type of tragedy, like a hurricane or a flood, anyone offering resources would be welcomed, but this was different. This tragedy had a face and a hatred for a certain group of people,” Thomas said. Beauford Jr., president and CEO of the Buffalo Urban League, which was one of the community organizations on site the day of the shooting.

“They rejected it completely,” Beauford said, adding, “The immediate reaction from advisers was, ‘We need to see advisers who look like us. “”

A prayer circle formed outside the Tops supermarket in Buffalo on Sunday, May 15, the day after the fatal shooting.

On Monday, the problem was solved. Wofford, who grew up on the rue des Tops, tapped into his network to make sure there were more black advisers on hand, that black people were the ones distribute flyers on the street about the services available and that black people were greeting people at the help centre.

“We made sure the affected community felt comfortable seeking out the services they needed,” Wofford said.

Its response efforts — and the focus of the May 14 shooting on existing disparities in the community — illustrate the role that the new Erie County Office of Health Equity is meant to play in the community. : ensuring that health services are equitably distributed among disadvantaged and marginalized populations.

In Erie County, there is a significant disparity between health outcomes for white residents and residents of color, which has become even clearer as Covid-19 has disproportionately affected black and brown communities there. as well as across the country.

Even before the pandemic, the life expectancy of black residents of Buffalo was 12 years shorter than that of white residents, according to a report published by the Buffalo Center for Health Equity in 2015, the most recent data available.

The Erie County Office of Health Equity was launched to help address these disparities. It was created in January by county law and funding was made possible by a major federal pandemic relief program known as the American Bailout which distributed money to states, counties and cities in the country.

Kelly Wofford is the first director of the Erie County Office of Health Equity, which launched earlier this year.

Erie County allocated about $1 million of the nearly $179 million it received from the US bailout for the creation of the Health Equity Office. It is using the remaining funds for a variety of needs, including economic relief for small businesses, water treatment infrastructure, and restoring jobs and expenses initially reduced due to the pandemic.

Although health equity issues were addressed before the office was established, the law formalized the efforts and put funding behind them, ensuring it can work to find long-term solutions. With Wofford at the helm, the office has nine staff members, including two epidemiologists.

“The Office of Health Equity – which did not exist and would not have existed without the funding we received from the US bailout – immediately became a full partner in the response to the Tops shooting. on May 14, being kind of the boots on the ground and the coordinator between third-party agencies and the county’s delivery of these services to the community,” said Mark Poloncarz, Erie County Executive.

“It was unlike any experience we’ve ever had,” added Poloncarz, “and I’m so grateful that we set up the Office of Health Equity because it would have made our job much more difficult without it. .”

Tackling health disparities is something communities across the country are grappling with, and while the pandemic has caused illness and death for millions of people, it has also helped give some momentum.

State and local health equity offices are nowhere near as prevalent as water utilities, for example, but they’re having a moment — in part because of the influx of money from the federal government to help communities recover.

“The pandemic has really highlighted the stark differences in our ability to keep people healthy, tied to race and ethnicity,” said Lori Tremmel Freeman, CEO of the National Association of Health Officials. counties and cities.

The group has not tracked the number of official equity offices opened, but the number is growing, Freeman said. Philadelphia hired its first racial equity officer earlier this year.

In the past, some communities have lacked the political will or resources to formalize their health equity efforts, she added.

A memorial waterfall has been built inside the renovated Tops supermarket in Buffalo, which reopened in July, two months after the mass shooting.

High-profile police killings of black people, including the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, have resulted in a number of communities declaring racism a public health crisis, laying the groundwork for some of the offices now opening. In April 2021, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also declared racism a serious threat to public health.

Addressing health inequalities will take time and will require addressing the social determinants of health. These are the factors that contribute to a person’s health over which they have no control, such as access to clean water and safe food and other conditions in which they live, work and plays that can affect his health.

“You’re really trying to create the same health opportunities for everyone in the community, regardless of economic status, where they live, or what they do,” Freeman said. said.

In mid-July, Tops grocery store reopened to mixed reactions from the community.

Without the supermarket, those without cars may not have had convenient access to nutritious food. For others, it was emotionally difficult to enter the store.

Buffalo Urban League crisis counselor Migdalia Lozada spent an August morning offering support to buyers. Lozada took a woman by the hand as she entered the store for the first time since the tragedy, feeling the woman’s tears fall down her arm.

The Buffalo Urban League Community Resource Center, located just two blocks from the Tops, continues to serve the traumatized neighborhood. People can walk straight into the space and speak with a crisis counselor. Some people are regulars who come almost every day. Others may have been triggered by an event such as a shooting elsewhere or movement in a court case against the shooting suspect.

“We’re just trying to give the person a space to open up somewhere safe and private,” Lozada said.

While the Buffalo Urban League’s crisis counselors had already been serving the community for months, its leaders wanted a physical space near the Tops store after the shooting. The group found an open space on the street that was once a neighborhood bar known as Pixie’s and opened a resource center there. a few days after the tragedy. The building intentionally looks much more like a local watering hole than a healthcare facility.

Buffalo Urban League's Yukea Wright (left), crisis counselor team leader, and Migdalia Lozada, crisis counselor, work at the resource center near the Tops.

The center also serves as a place that connects people to other resources to address a wide range of social determinants of health, such as employment, housing and education.

The Buffalo Urban League plans to work closely with the county, particularly with the new Office of Health Equity, to help advance long-term changes.

The count is working first on training people in the National Mental Health First Aid Program, so the county can deploy counselors throughout the community – such as in Bible studies and community centers – to meet people where they are. already find. A recent national study found that while the share of American adults who have received mental health treatment has increased throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, people of color are less able to access mental health services. .

The office is also working on a survey which, in part, will show what issues community members would like to see addressed – these could be the high prevalence of diabetes or high blood pressure, for example.

“When you look at the social determinants of health, there are inequities between them, so you can choose whichever you want,” Wofford said.

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