The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has declared racism a “serious public health threat” that requires immediate action.

CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky made the declaration Thursday, citing racism as a major cause of “health inequities, health disparities and disease.” She used the ongoing pandemic to support the agency’s claim, reminding the public the coronavirus has disproportionately affected communities of color; however, Walensky emphasized that racism’s impact on public health was evident long before the global crisis.

“Yet, the disparities seen over the past year were not a result of COVID-19,” Walensky wrote in a statement. “Instead, the pandemic illuminated inequities that have existed for generations and revealed for all of America a known, but often unaddressed, epidemic impacting public health: racism.

“What we know is this: racism is a serious public health threat that directly affects the well-being of millions of Americans. As a result, it affects the health of our entire nation. Racism is not just the discrimination against one group based on the color of their skin or their race or ethnicity, but the structural barriers that impact racial and ethnic groups differently to influence where a person lives, where they work, where their children play, and where they worship and gather in community. These social determinants of health have life-long negative effects on the mental and physical health of individuals in communities of color.”

The declaration coincided with the launch of CDC’s Racism and Health, an agency-wide initiative that aims to study and combat health disparities caused by racism. Walensky said the agency is also using COVID-19 funding to further invest in racial and ethnic minority communities, with the goal of creating a “durable infrastructure” that will improve health equity.

“Confronting the impact of racism will not be easy,” Walensky continued. “I know that we can meet this challenge. I know that we can create an America where all people have the opportunity to live a healthy life when we each take responsibility and work together. I am committed to this work. I certainly hope you will lean in and join me.”