In late November, Jamie Carmichael was named the Ohio Department of Health’s first chief health opportunity advisor. The position was created to support the recommendations of the COVID-19 Minority Health Strike Force. Carmichael, who previously served as deputy director of public affairs for the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, spoke with Interact for Health about her work to advance health equity and establish Ohio as a model for justice, equity, opportunity and resilience.
Interact for Health: How did your experience at the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services prepare you for your new role?
Carmichael: Before the opioid epidemic local communities were trying to address addiction without much coordinated support from the state and federal governments. The opioid epidemic created an opportunity for conversation, policy improvements and increased targeted funding to address addiction. I believe the recent increased attention to social justice and racism has created a similar opening to address equity, health disparities and social determinants of health.
Interact for Health: Your job is to eliminate the disparity in coronavirus outcomes among Ohio’s diverse populations. Where have you focused your initial energy?
Carmichael: I have been overwhelmingly impressed by the nonstop, dedicated work of the ODH team and local health departments in responding to this global pandemic. My initial focus has been to jump in and be helpful where I can in multiple workstreams. ODH was already implementing an equity approach throughout the process from distributing personal protective equipment to vulnerable communities and targeted messages in the “More than a Mask” campaign, to offering pop-up testing to more than 100,000 people in high-risk communities across the state. I am working to support and build on those efforts to ensure a focus on equity in the vaccine distribution planning.
Interact for Health: How are you collaborating with other stakeholders and groups to achieve your goal?
Carmichael: I truly believe that one of the keys to equity is inclusion and connection. One of the first things I have been able to do in this new role is to establish a Minority Health Vaccine team made up of an ethnically, racially and geographically diverse group that includes medical professionals, advocates, community health professionals, small business owners and higher education professionals to help inform ODH’s vaccine planning efforts. The group has already added invaluable insight and guidance to the state’s vaccine plan.
Interact for Health: What has been the biggest challenge so far?
Carmichael: There was already so much good work happening in ODH to address equity, disparities and social determinants that just understanding the current lay of the land, the resources that are available and the opportunities for additional support has been a challenge.
Interact for Health: What has surprised you the most?
Carmichael: The nonstop nature of the COVID-19 response by local and state employees has been awe-inspiring. I seriously cannot impress upon your readers enough how much everyone is pushing themselves to help keep people safe from this disease. I don’t think that enough people realize the personal sacrifices and unyielding dedication our health department workers are making on a daily basis to get this huge job done.
Interact for Health: What are you doing to ensure the COVID-19 vaccine is distributed equitably?
Carmichael: One of my main jobs is being an educator and advocate for the concept of equity in our vaccine conversations at the state, as well as a voice for the practical application of equitable thought in planning. The Minority Health Vaccine team has offered invaluable insight into potential barriers and fears associated with the equitable allocation of the vaccine. I am using what they share with me, what the experts say, and what the data and research show to influence critical planning decisions.
Interact for Health: How do you expect the pandemic and the renewed scrutiny on inequity and systemic racism will affect and guide your work going forward?
Carmichael: The pandemic and the recent increased attention to the social justice movement has created a unique space in time for discussions on the social construct of race, racism and the long-standing issues of inequity in our country and in our state. I hope to use this opportunity to highlight ODH’s commitment to equity and to partner across sectors — private and public — for meaningful, impactful change.
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