2nd city town hall on public health inequities hears community input

Ariel Hayat/Senior Staff

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In the last of a series of town hall meetings and focus groups, community members and public health officials joined together Tuesday to discuss some of the city’s most pertinent public health priorities.

The town hall was organized by consulting firm Bright Research Group, which set out to gather community input about health inequities in Berkeley. The meeting was held at the South Berkeley Senior Center in order to reach people who can’t drive or take public transit, according to the group’s founder, Brightstar Ohlson.

“When you look at the data, there are greater levels of inequities in low-income communities like South Berkeley,” she said.

The first town hall, held May 26 in West Berkeley, had a low turnout of underrepresented minority residents. In order to boost attendance at Tuesday’s meeting, Ohlson said that Bright Research Group partnered with the city’s community organizations and held smaller focus groups beforehand specifically targeted at black, Latino, youth and homeless populations.

While the city’s public health division initially published a report identifying its own highly prioritized areas of improvement — cardiovascular disease, asthma-induced hospitalizations, low birth weight and prematurity, and reproductive health — the town hall was meant to highlight residents’ concerns as well.

“We heard from City Council that we were not doing a measurably good job with respect to health disparities in the city of Berkeley,” said Alvan Quamina, the division’s health services supervisor.

He said many of the same issues highlighted in past Health Status Reports showed up again in the 2013 report, which led the division to believe it needed to systematically measure its progress — or lack thereof — in improving the health of Berkeley’s communities.

During a breakout discussion session at the meeting, attendees said the city needs to work harder to keep public health resources accessible, especially immunization and mental health services.

Vicki Alexander, a retired city public health worker, said at the town hall that the city lacks adequate vaccination education. According to the 2013 Health Status Report, only 78 percent of Berkeley kindergarteners are fully vaccinated.

“Knowledge is power,” said Berkeley resident Elsa Ramos during one discussion group. “Otherwise, people won’t participate, and city officials will do whatever they want.”

Some attendees expressed concerns about what Alexander described as “passivity” from the South Berkeley community. About 30 residents attended the town hall, including City Councilmember Max Anderson. He said he believes that “community cohesion” provides practical, long-lasting solutions to public health inequities.

According to Janet Berreman, the city’s health officer, the final report will consist of the quantitative data gathered in the Health Status Report and the qualitative information provided by the community. The public health division expects to present the finished product to City Council by October.

Contact Ariel Hayat at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @ArielHayat.