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Coronavirus and gun violence: Mayors fight a double public health crisis

Activists help minority communities during pandemic
Activists help minority communities hit hardest by coronavirus 02:00

A national gun safety advocacy group is offering up new guidelines for mayors now struggling to manage two public health crises at the same time -- COVID-19 and gun violence. In guidelines released on Monday, Everytown for Gun Safety is urging mayors to prioritize gun violence intervention programs, which have seen success using outreach teams to stop violence before it starts. Gun violence has for years disproportionately impacted communities of color struggling with health care inequalities, unemployment, poverty and lower levels of education. Now, those same communities are hardest hit by coronavirus, and advocates say the two crises have created a  "perfect storm."

Philadelphia black communities hit hard by coronavirus pandemic 02:45

"Systemic and structural inequality creates an environment in which a public health epidemic, whether it's gun violence or COVID, can thrive," said Michael-Sean Spence, director of policy and implementation for Everytown for Gun Safety. "Even before COVID, there was a lack of investment in social services we now see they need most in times of crisis."

Mayors of major cities are on the front lines of both. Many cities have noted a decrease in overall crime after widespread stay-at-home orders were put in place because more would-be perpetrators and potential victims are off the streets, said Christopher Herrmann, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. But at the same time, some cities are also seeing violent crime like shootings and gun homicides remain steady or even increase -- likely because a shooter motivated by a personal dispute or retaliation isn't likely to obey a stay-at-home order, Herrmann said. And when lockdowns begin to lift and the warmer summer months bring more people outside, shootings will increase, he said.

In Philadelphia, shootings are on the rise and year-to-date homicides compared to last year are up 17 percent, according to police data. The city, which has seen a year-to-year uptick in homicides since 2013, has taken a "holistic" approach to gun violence focused on youth intervention strategies, job training and education in the hardest hit neighborhoods, Mayor Jim Kenney told CBS News. But fallout from the coronavirus crisis is exacerbating the underlying social issues that lead to violence, such as surging unemployment. Social distancing is making it difficult for outreach teams to engage with youth, and at the same time, safe havens like rec centers, libraries and schools -- which can be lifelines for those most at risk -- are shuttered. 

"You have teens out on the street with no outlet for education and adult mentorship, and you have poverty exacerbated by the loss of jobs by the economic meltdown," Kenney said. "It's a frightening situation. Our police are doing the best they can."

Coronavirus reveals racial health gap in U.S. 08:58

Everytown for Gun Safety released the anti-violence guidelines in conjunction with it's group Mayors against Illegal Guns, which includes Kenney and the mayors of Baltimore, Chicago, Louisville, Los Angeles and others. The guidelines urge mayors to prioritize continuity of services for victims of increasing domestic violence, promote secure gun storage to prevent accidental youth shootings and youth suicide, and educate first-time gun buyers about the risks of gun ownership as gun sales surge. They also stress the importance of continued funding for gun violence intervention strategies, amid fears discretionary funds for intervention programs could get shifted elsewhere due to strained state and local budgets.

"We want to ensure they have sustained funding moving forward, as we expect the pandemic to continue to exacerbate the underlying issues that lead to increasing gun violence," Spence said.

One gun violence intervention model that has seen enormous success is Cure Violence. The program was launched by epidemiologist Dr. Gary Slutkin, whose background is in controlling epidemics such as tuberculosis and cholera. Slutkin advocates treating gun violence as a public health issue, not a criminal justice one, an approach that has gained traction in jurisdictions across the country.

Much like someone is at risk for COVID if they come into contact with someone who is infected, Slutkin says, years of research has shown that those who are perpetrators or victims of shootings are at a much higher risk of being involved in more shootings.

"A health epidemic means that one event leads to another, leads to another," Slutkin said. "That's the definition of something contagious or infectious or transmissible, is that it is a risk factor for itself."

The Cure Violence program treats gun violence as an infectious disease and uses "credible messengers," often people with previous criminal justice system contacts who have disavowed a violent lifestyle, to mediate conflicts, prevent retaliatory shootings and connect at-risk people to social services. These "violence interrupters" use their relationships, access and credibility to change behavior in communities that can have a deep mistrust of law enforcement, Slutkin said.

Cure Violence Community COVID-19 Response by Cure Violence on YouTube

In the era of COVID-19, advocates say the work of Cure Violence and other gun violence intervention programs is especially crucial. Already trained in effective public health messaging, outreach workers are also reinforcing the importance of handwashing, social distancing and mask-wearing in communities that might be wary of government directives or may not have access to Internet or television, Slutkin said. 

In Chicago, which has also seen an uptick in year-to-date shootings and murders, Mayor Lori Lightfoot says the ongoing work of violence interrupters and other community-based groups is key to curbing gun violence. She has also issued stern warnings for shooters to put down their guns so medical workers already strained with an influx of coronavirus patients aren't forced to divert resources to gunshot wound victims.

"Unfortunately, the epidemic of gun violence continues to plague us every day, every hour of the day," Lightfoot said earlier this month.

She said violence is never acceptable, but curtailing it is "especially urgent now as our ability to treat all Chicagoans is being stretched to the breaking point."

Tim Scott on racial disparities in coronavirus infections, death rate 06:39

Hospitals across the country have freed up space and resources by putting off elective surgeries and ramping up reliance on telemedicine. But "caring for severely injured trauma patients is something that can't be done remotely, and it's not something that can be postponed," said Elinore Kaufman, a trauma surgeon at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center in Philadelphia.

Kaufman wrote a New York Times opinion piece titled, "Please, stop shooting. We need the beds."  Kaufman told CBS News victims of gunshot wounds require medical staff to use much of the same personal protective equipment that's in high demand across the country, and the patients often require surgeries and a stay in the intensive care unit.

"The system is increasingly burdened caring for COVID-19 patients, and the only thing we can do to reduce the care we provide for severely injured patients is hope they don't come in," Kaufman said.

Sadly, Kaufman said many of the gunshot victims she treats, often young African American males, come from the same vulnerable communities struck hardest by COVID. And where she's seen a "pretty notable decrease" in victims with injuries from pedestrian accidents and car collisions -- likely due to more people staying at home -- the steady flow of gunshot victims has not abated "at all."  

Kaufman, too, advocates for continued funding for public health-based gun violence intervention strategies. "It's not possible to overstate the damage" gun violence causes to communities, Kaufman said.

"The loss of life, the loss of potential, and the community level trauma that gun violence causes in our low resource communities is unconscionable, and it's all of our responsibilities," Kaufman said.

Kenney urged mayors leading their communities through the double crises to show compassion, especially for those who have lost loved ones -- whether to COVID or gun violence -- and are forced to grieve their loss alone.

"Have some compassion and some empathy for the people you represent, and understand that every gun death and every COVID death affects scores of people and their families," Kenney said.

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