Utah House committee green-lights resolution declaring racism as public health crisis

Posted at 9:43 PM, Feb 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-24 00:31:28-05

SALT LAKE CITY — Tuesday evening, a Utah House committee gave its stamp of approval on a resolution that declares racism a public health crisis and commits to acting for change.

Before the vote, some legislators expressed that they didn't understand the link between race and healthcare at first, until they heard from the medical community about the issue being a real threat.

Several people presented and gave public comment — from medical students to doctors to the Utah Hospital Association. Each echoed that systemic racism exists within healthcare, saying that statistics from the COVID-19 pandemic alone show it.

Some indicated that they had a hard time reading the resolution (House Joint Resolution 13).

"As I read this, I wasn't comfortable, I have to say," said Rep. Marsha Judkins (R-Provo).

Rep. Kelly Miles (R-Ogden) said when he first read the bill, he thought that racism was a character flaw -- not something like tobacco, that would have a negative effect on health.

"I'm still having trouble wrapping my mind around how racism could be like COVID or something like that," he said.

Rep. Sandra Hollins (D-Salt Lake City) said that COVID-19 helped expose the health inequities happening in our community.

"I think it helped the conversation because people see data, and data and numbers don't lie. So they see what is happening right before their eyes," she said.

Dr. Mike Woodruff, who works in emergency medicine at Intermountain Healthcare, explained that there are hundreds of studies that show systemic racism is linked to worse health outcomes.
He said they have lived through this with the COVID-19 pandemic and seen it with their own eyes.

"We saw lower rates of testing in our Black population. We saw higher rates of hospitalization for our Latinx population and communities, and we saw native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders die at a higher rate than white members of the community from COVID-19," Dr. Woodruff listed. "And this is not genetics. It's widely accepted that this is evidence of systemic racism."

The Intermountain Healthcare doctor talked about how their community is taking a stand and recently came together with other health systems in Utah and the Utah Hospital Association to sign a statement acknowledging that racism is a threat to the health of families in communities. Dr. Woodruff said they are committed to real actions to address the public health crisis.

READ: Utah's health care systems fight systemic racism

Rep. Hollins said she started looking at the issues and also saw racism play a big role in the issues around COVID-19.

She told the House Health and Human Services Committee that part of the concern with COVID-19 is the lack of trust in the healthcare system by the Black community.

Rep. Hollins pointed to the Tuskegee Experiment as an example of historical racism that still impacts the Black community today. It's still ingrained in a lot of their minds, she said, especially with COVID-19 and receiving the vaccine.

Kilo Zamora, a gender studies faculty member at the University of Utah, explained to the committee that structures in policies give some great opportunities for some to live happier lives than others.

They view racism as more than just an individual character flaw, he said. It's not about being malicious, but about what is happening systemically.

He gave an example of research that shows that students of color get disciplined at a higher rate than their white counterparts. That can, in turn, affect graduation rates and college attendance, he explained.

Zamora said the first step is to diagnose inequities.

Rep. Hollins agreed.

"It's one of the things that I want to start looking at now," she said. "I want to start addressing the health disparities in the community."

How does one address that?

The House Health and Human Services Committee unanimously decided that H.J.R. 13 is a start: "Declaring Racism a Moral and Public Health Crisis."

The resolution now moves to the House Floor.

"I am excited to be committed as a legislator to this," said Rep. Cheryl Acton (R-West Jordan).

Rep. Judkins said she knows that there are real health disparities and other institutionalized racism, and she believes people who say they experience this.

Rep. Miles said he recognizes it's a crisis, and it was helpful to hear the presentation and public comment.

Starting with the conversation, Rep. Hollins said, allows the community to work on solutions.

"You can't solve a problem that you won't admit you have," she said. "And this [resolution] states, 'We have an issue. We have a problem. We have a challenge in this state that we need to address, that we need to start having conversation about.'"