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Resolution that would declare racism a ‘public health crisis’ in Utah advances in Legislature

The measure would call on state legislators to pass anti-racist laws and rules.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, speaks on HCR013, a resolution that would declare racism to be a public health crisis, in the House Health and Human Services Committee, on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021.

A panel of Utah lawmakers voiced support Tuesday for declaring racism a “moral and public health crisis” and for promising to promote policies that would make meaningful change.

The committee’s endorsement for this declaration came after experts, educators and state residents spoke about how racism can block access to health care, put people at greater risk of trauma, and create distrust for government and medical institutions.

Rep. Sandra Hollins, who is sponsoring the resolution to recognize racism as a statewide crisis, said these problems have surfaced even as officials and health workers distribute vaccines to end the deadly COVID-19 pandemic. A number of Black people have told her they are uncomfortable taking the vaccine, in part, because of the infamous Tuskeegee, Ala., experiment — a syphilis study in which researchers withheld treatment from African American men without their knowledge.

“And this is something that is still ingrained in a lot of our minds,” said Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, the only Black lawmaker in Utah’s Legislature. “And I can’t tell you that when I first heard of the vaccine, that that didn’t pop into my mind. Because my first response was, ‘I’m not taking this. I don’t know what this is. I don’t know what the health care system is trying to do to me.’”

A first-year medical student at the University of Utah shared a story about how her parents, who are refugees, were treated when they took her to urgent care as a child. She watched her panicked father “tripping over words” to explain what was wrong to the medical staff, who whispered to one another about how her family probably lacked insurance.

Though her father was simply acting like a concerned parent, the medical student said, “racism and stereotyping in the room painted my family as off or aggressive, potentially a patient they weren’t willing to treat.”

Ultimately, the hospital called in security to get involved, she said.

These stories offered a perspective shift to Rep. Kelly Miles, who said he’d never thought of racism as a health problem.

“I thought racism was a character flaw, not like COVID or not like tobacco,” the Ogden Republican said. “It’s been helpful to hear the debate and hear those that have presented in the public comment, that it’s helped me get there to where I guess racism could be considered a health crisis.”

The House Health and Human Services Committee voted in unanimous support of the resolution, HJR13, which will now go to the full House for consideration.

While the resolution isn’t a mandate and wouldn’t directly prompt action, it would serve as a collective statement by the Utah Legislature and could guide future decision-making.

Racism negatively impacts the day-to-day lives of people of color in Utah, the resolution states, stressing that the social and material factors that influence health “have a lifelong impact beginning even before birth.”

Those “social determinants of health” can manifest through inequities in housing, education and unemployment — and on top of that, racial minorities are also at higher risk for experiencing the childhood traumas that can have long-lasting effects on a person’s academic outcomes, behavior and physical health, the resolution states, citing the American Psychological Association.

Dr. Mike Woodruff, an emergency physician and interim chief patient experience officer for Intermountain Healthcare, testified that study after study shows that systemic racism is correlated with worse health outcomes but said the coronavirus pandemic made these inequities apparent in a new way.

“I think we lived through this in the COVID-19,” he said. “We saw this with our own eyes.”

The resolution notes that the COVID-19 pandemic has put a spotlight on “the stark racial injustices” that still exist in Utah, with Native American, Alaska Native, Latino and Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities accounting for a disproportionate number of coronavirus cases in the state. Black Utahns have been less likely to receive COVID-19 testing than the population as a whole, while Asian American residents have dealt with “a rise in xenophobic narratives” during the pandemic, the resolution states.

The resolution also calls on the Legislature to voice its support for the Utah Compact on Racial Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, a document that many state leaders have signed to recognize the harms of racism and commit to financial investments and public policy changes to eliminate disparities.

The Legislature should pledge to work with the governor and other community leaders on policies to improve the quality of life and health of Utahns of color and pass anti-racist laws and regulations, always evaluating whether a given policy plays “a role in upholding or dismantling racist systems,” the resolution concludes.

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