In a new report, the Chicago Department of Public Health found life expectancy for all Chicagoans dropped by almost two years during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. CDPH says the drop from 2019 to 2020 was one of the largest on record. Latino residents saw the sharpest drop with a three-year dip from 79.1 to 75.9 years.
But while COVID-19 did have an impact, it was diabetes, heart disease, cancer and stroke — illnesses that have long disproportionately plagued Black and brown communities – that exacted the worst toll.
Cook County Health recently unveiled The Change Institute, a think tank they say will bring the urgency and focus of the COVID-19 pandemic response to addressing these other health issues.
Cook County Health CEO Israel Rocha Jr. said the city’s pandemic response inspired The Change Institute’s creation.
“We went from having a disease that no one knew anything about to basically treating people with air and water, ventilators and hydration,” Rocha said. “In terms of medicine, it was lightning speed to go from not having a diagnosis to having a vaccine in hand that was able to help us mitigate the most severe impacts of COVID. That energy, that excitement, that ability — that we all came together because we knew that the disease affected us all — we want to keep that going.”
The Change Institute’s mission includes addressing the so-called “social determinants of health” that contribute to disparities, such as access to healthy foods, transportation and health care. Rocha also hopes to change how the idea of social determinants is perceived among health care providers.
“Somehow along the way that went from an understanding to a diagnosis and people started using social determinants to say that you were socially determined to do something,” Rocha said. “The Change Institute’s most important mission is to say that nobody is determined to have a bad outcome. It doesn’t matter your race, your ethnicity, what you look like where you live. Those should not be the factors to determine whether you live or die. We have science and technology to mitigate that and it’s time that we change that, and everybody has an ability to live their best life.”
Those technological advancements and improved interventions are key to The Change Institute’s mission, said Rocha.
“We have advanced surgeries … that can help you live longer, but they’re not available to everyone because they’re often elective. If you don’t have the right insurance, they may not be accessible. We want to change that and make them available to everyone,” he said.
The organization is still in its planning stages, but Rocha said that one thing is already certain – he’s looking for all of Chicago’s institutions and communities to join the mission.
“We want the Change institute to be a convening of everybody, we need our business partners. We need our nonprofits. We need the community to join us,” he said. “The Change Institute is the start of a movement, a movement that we all can live our healthiest life. That we can be better that we can address these challenges that have plagued us for so long, cardiovascular disorder, neurological disorders, oncological disorders, diabetes, that we can make a movement together. But we need their help. We need their funding. We need their research, and we also need their time.”