The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Virginia public health chief expresses ‘regret’ in disrespecting staff

Dr. Colin M. Greene, now the Virginia Health Department commissioner, was acting director of the Rappahannock-Rapidan Health District in this January 2022 photo. (Culpeper Star-Exponent)
Placeholder while article actions load

Colin Greene, the embattled Virginia health commissioner who in comments to his staff and media interviews dismissed the role of structural racism in public health, on Friday walked back his views in a staff-wide note as public officials questioned his fitness for office.

“I am fully aware that racism at many levels is a factor in a wide range of public health outcomes and disparities across the Commonwealth and the United States. I also deeply regret that any of this has caused you to feel discounted or disrespected; such has never and will never be my intent,” he wrote late Friday in a note obtained by The Washington Post.

The message came a day after Va. Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) issued a statement, saying he was disappointed Greene did not “effectively communicate our mission,” after Greene said invoking racism alienates White people and suggested a genetic reason for disparities in Black maternal mortality.

Greene, a retired Army colonel and Youngkin appointee who since taking office five months ago has clashed with his own experts on racial disparities and agency scientists over coronavirus restrictions, stopped short of apologizing for his comments in the three-paragraph message. Greene, through a spokeswoman, declined an interview and did not answer written questions Saturday.

The chairwoman of the Board of Health, Faye O. Prichard, and longtime board member Jim Edmondson, both appointees of former governor Terry McAuliffe (D), said they think Greene should resign.

“My reaction is, too little too late,” Edmondson said Saturday. “Damage done. You can’t say those things and not mean them.”

They plan to address their concerns about Greene’s views at their regular quarterly public meeting Thursday, which Greene is expected to attend.

Del. Lamont Bagby (D-Henrico), chairman of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, said the governor agreed to “a meeting” about Greene’s remarks, at the caucus’s request, but did not say who would be there.

“We spoke briefly and will speak again to make arrangements for the meeting,” Bagby said.

Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter declined to comment after receiving detailed questions about Greene and his statement.

Greene’s statement comes three days after The Post reported Greene’s views that racism is not a public health crisis, gun violence is a Democratic talking point and that he is not convinced structural racism is a factor in Black mothers and their babies dying at a much higher than their White counterparts — a fact established by decades of research.

The story is based in part on interviews with Greene and Vanessa Walker Harris, the director of the health department’s office in charge of addressing maternal and infant mortality, who said a March meeting with Greene left her and her team traumatized and fearful for their jobs.

State Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan (D-Richmond) said Greene’s note is “gaslighting” and downplays the impact of his questions about the link between racism and health outcomes.

“Based on my conversations with employees at the Department of Health, this has had a chilling effect on their ability to do their job to address health disparities,” she said.

Tension over role of racism in public health strains Va. agency under Youngkin

Four employees who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak for the agency said reading Greene’s views left them demoralized, will deepen the mistrust vulnerable communities already have in government, which was put to the test during the pandemic, and politicize an agency that should be apolitical.

In a virtual meeting of several hundred health department employees Friday, some set their computer screen backgrounds to solid blue with the message “I believe that Racism and Gun Violence are public health issues. #IsupportDrWalkerHarris,” according to three of the employees and a screenshot of the message.

Post articles and related coverage about Greene’s views have been omitted from a daily compilation of news stories sent to staff, known as “VDH in the news,” typically an noncontroversial summary of positive and negative articles, according to two employees.

The leaders of the department’s office of epidemiology, including State Epidemiologist Lilian Peake, on Friday held a “listening session” to “provide a safe space for anyone on our team to voice their thoughts and feelings” after hearing from many of them about The Post article, according to an internal email.

They also reaffirmed that one of the core values in the office’s strategic plan is “fostering an environment … inclusive of age, race, sexual orientation, gender, religion, culture, ethnicity, and nationality in order to overcome health and social inequities …”

“We believe this value is foundational to building respectful relationships with our colleagues and the communities we serve,” they wrote.

Youngkin appointed Greene as acting health commissioner in the early days of the administration and removed “acting” from his title in early April. A Temple University-educated physician, Greene, 63, previously served as a local health director in northwestern Virginia and has pressed the agency to focus on convincing people in hard-hit rural areas to become vaccinated against the coronavirus.

He oversees a department with a budget of more than $800 million and about 3,800 full-time employees, many of whom were on the front lines of the pandemic. The department is based in Richmond and coordinates with 35 local health districts, which track disease outbreaks, promote prevention to combat illness and conduct emergency preparedness training.

Greene serves at the will of the governor, until the next regular legislative session in January when his appointment is subject to confirmation by state lawmakers, several of whom publicly questioned his leadership this week.

He is scheduled Thursday to give a general report on the agency to the Board of Health, which helps oversee the Department of Health’s mission and approves healthcare-related regulations. All 15 board members were appointed to staggered terms by Democratic governors, including Prichard, Edmondson and two others whose terms expire at the end of the month, giving Youngkin a chance to appoint four new members.

Prichard said Greene’s statements contradict the mission of the agency.

“This is in conflict with everything that the Board of Health has put forward on moving Virginia forward and meeting our health goals,” she said. “We are definitely going to want a lot of answers.”