As California surpasses New York in the number of deaths due to COVID-19, the state continues to grapple with vaccine shortages, disparities in immunizations, and the rapid spread of coronavirus mutations. California Surgeon General Nadine Burke Harris, MD, who advises the governor on matters of public health, joins Washington Post Live for a discussion focused on the state of California’s battle with COVID-19. She’ll discuss how the vaccine rollout highlights long-standing racial inequities in health care, the impact of the pandemic on children’s mental health, and the path forward as California confronts new variants of the virus.


California Surgeon General Nadine Burke Harris, MD, says the state’s vaccine rollout got off to a bumpy start, but she says they are doing much better after ramping up distribution. “Gov. Newsom really, really challenged us to do better, and what we saw was that California has rapidly ramped up our vaccine distribution and has gone from not doing so hot in terms of our rate of vaccines that were getting out there to now really leading the pack in terms of number of vaccines that are administered each day.” (Washington Post Live)
Life expectancy in the United States dropped one year during the first half of 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. But minorities suffered the biggest impact, with Black Americans losing 2.7 years and Hispanics, nearly two years. California Surgeon General Nadine Burke Harris, MD, says that decline is due, in part, to the pandemic, but reluctance to go to the doctor is also a factor. “[W]hat we see is excess deaths overall are increasing because there are many folks who are hesitant to reach out, or go to the doctor, or go seek health care and that’s one of the pieces that has been key here in California is communicating to the public, ‘Hey, if you have high blood pressure, if you have diabetes, if you have a heart condition, if you have chronic lung disease, do not delay your regular care.” (Washington Post Live)
California Surgeon General Nadine Burke Harris, MD, says the state is using a Healthy Places Index to help allocate vaccines to the communities that need them the most. “[I]t’s a measure of the types of resources that communities need to keep themselves healthy…For our communities in California that are in the lowest quartile of the Healthy Places Index, the rate of disease and death is far greater…That means that we need to be allocating more vaccine to those communities, so that we can prevent this disproportionate rate of disease and death.” (Washington Post Live)
When asked if she thinks President Biden should appoint a mental health czar, California Surgeon General Nadine Burke Harris, MD, said, “unreservedly yes.” “I think that we definitely need a big focus on our mental and emotional well-being…We are really feeling that stress, that isolation from this pandemic. It is an incredibly stressful time, and so, I would love to see a mental health czar.” (Washington Post Live)

California Surgeon General Nadine Burke Harris, MD

Dr. Nadine Burke Harris is an award-winning physician, researcher and advocate dedicated to changing the way our society responds to one of the most serious, expensive and widespread public health crises of our time: childhood trauma. She was appointed as California’s first-ever Surgeon General by Governor Gavin Newsom in January 2019.

Dr. Burke Harris’ career has been dedicated to serving vulnerable communities and combating the root causes of health disparities. After completing her residency at Stanford, she founded a clinic in one of San Francisco’s most underserved communities, Bayview Hunters Point. It was there that Burke Harris observed that, despite the implementation of national best-practices for immunizations, asthma, obesity treatment and other preventive health measures, her patients still faced outsized risks for poor health, development and behavioral outcomes.

Drawing in research from the CDC and Kaiser Permanente, Dr. Burke Harris identified Adverse Childhood Experiences as a major risk factor affecting the health of her patients. In 2011, she founded the Center for Youth Wellness and subsequently grew the organization to be a national leader in the effort to advance pediatric medicine, raise public awareness, and transform the way society responds to children exposed to Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and toxic stress. She also founded and led the Bay Area Research Consortium on Toxic Stress and Health, to advance scientific screening and treatment of toxic stress.

She currently serves as a government liaison for the American Academy of Pediatrics’ National Advisory Board for Screening and sat on the board of the Committee on Applying Neurobiological and Sociobehavioral Sciences From Prenatal Through Early Childhood Development: A Health Equity Approach for the National Academy of Medicine.

Her work has been profiled in best-selling books including “How Children Succeed” by Paul Tough and “Hillbilly Elegy” by J.D. Vance as well as in Jamie Redford’s feature film, “Resilience”. It has also been featured on NPR, CNN and Fox News as well as in USA Today and the New York Times. Dr. Burke Harris’ TED Talk, “How Childhood Trauma Affects Health Across the Lifetime” has been viewed more than 7 million times. Her book “The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity” was called “indispensable” by The New York Times.

Dr. Burke Harris is the recipient of the Arnold P. Gold Foundation Humanism in Medicine Award presented by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Heinz Award for the Human Condition. She was named one of 2018’s Most Influential Women in Business by the San Francisco Business Times.