Dr. Jessica Beard to City Council: “Help Philadelphians understand the public health context, root causes, and solutions for gun violence.”

Trauma surgeon and public health researcher Dr. Jessica H. Beard, MD, MPH, FACS, addressed the Philadelphia City Council Special Committee on Gun Violence Prevention on Tuesday, March 30. Here is her testimony, as prepared:

Thank you for the opportunity to share my perspective on gun violence in Philadelphia with this committee. I am speaking to you as a trauma surgeon, a gun violence and public health researcher, a mom, and a Philadelphian. 

I work at the busiest trauma center for gunshot wounds in the city. My profession, trauma surgery, was developed to address the physical wounds of violence. Every single day I go to work, I am ready to care for the next patient with a gunshot wound.

My job is always hard; it is both physically and emotionally grueling. But this past year, since the onset of the pandemic, it has been unbearable. Running from patient to patient, sometimes caring for two, three, four or more critically ill gunshot injured patients at once. Each shooting victim is a person wounded, suffering, asking me if he is going to die, wanting to hold my hand as she goes into surgery.

At work, I wear plastic shoes so that I can wipe them down when they get bloody. I wear scrubs so that if my patient’s blood gets on me I can change my clothes quickly. One night this fall, I changed my bloodied scrubs 5 times.

Almost every night I am on call in the hospital, I have to perform life-saving surgery that results in extreme disability for my patient like a colostomy bag or an amputation or I have to tell a patient he will never walk again, or tell a mom her son is dead. And I will tell you, the wails of a mother who has lost her baby stay with you forever. 

During the height of the pandemic, I was sometimes responsible for more than 60 injured patients at one time. I bet you know all about how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted healthcare workers on the frontlines. Have you heard about the stress gun violence causes to healthcare workers and hospitals? Can you imagine the stress of dealing with an unprecedented surge in gun violence during this pandemic?

Research from our team found that the weekly rate of shootings in Philadelphia has nearly doubled since the onset of COVID-19 containment policies in March of 2020. And the carnage is far from over. I sat down many times last week to write this testimony, and many times my pager went off interrupting my writing: gunshot wound, gunshot wound, another gunshot wound.

Gun violence is a public health emergency in Philadelphia and across the United States. We are living in an historic moment, coming out of a global pandemic with newfound experience with what a public health response to disease looks like. And we have that experience in a political climate where we are finally reckoning with structural racism. 

The time is now to understand, discuss, and address gun violence as the public health problem that it is. A public health response should approach gun violence as an epidemic that can be contained and disrupted like any other, mitigated with intervention strategies, and eradicated by addressing root causes, including racism.

The mayor’s biweekly briefing on gun violence is a golden opportunity for city leaders to begin to broaden the lens on gun violence from one focused on law enforcement strategies to one truly grounded in a public health approach, setting us on a path to prevent shooting deaths, reduce injuries and save lives.

During the first briefing, I do not recall hearing any discussions of how gun violence is impacting our city economically, how hospitals are meeting the increased burden of gun violence, and how the root causes of gun violence, including racism are being specifically addressed. Surely in a briefing on COVID, we would hear the answers these questions, so we should be asking them about gun violence. 

Following the first briefing, the majority of press questions were focused on law enforcement responses because gun violence was not framed as a pubic health emergency. This was a missed opportunity for media, politicians, and community members to discuss and begin to understand gun violence as a public health problem with tangible, actionable solutions. 

In response to the first briefing, I co-authored an op-ed for The Philadelphia Inquirer, along with Jim MacMillan from the Center for Gun Violence Reporting at Community College of Philadelphia.

We outlined what a more effective briefing might look like and the sort of questions we would like to see answered by the mayor and city officials.

We would like to hear from a wide variety of sources, not just law enforcement, about what is being done, how it is being evaluated, what new research shows, and how we compare to other cities. In addition, we would like to hear clear and simple explanations of how gun violence prevention programs work and how we know they are working. 

We also recommended that the city elevate gun violence information services to the standards set by COVID-19 efforts by distributing a press release following each briefing, sharing daily public summaries, and continuing to organize and update the newly released home page and data dashboard, with more open data than is presently made available.

You may ask why this is important. This is important because what we have been doing is not working. 

Media reporting on public health threats like gun violence directly influences the way the public understands and responds to the health threat. If the mayor can help Philadelphians understand the public health context, root causes, and solutions for gun violence through these biweekly briefings, this could go a long way to gain support for effective solutions and begin to stem the tide of shootings in the city.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today.