Salt Lake City Council and Mayor Erin Mendenhall declare racism a public health crisis

Resolution cites state data showing disparities between people of color and their white counterparts, particularly during the pandemic.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, shown June 24, 2021, joined with the City Council in declaring racism a public health crisis.

The Salt Lake City Council and Mayor Erin Mendenhall unanimously declared racism a public health crisis Tuesday night.

The joint resolution, which received support from the city’s Commission on Racial Equity in Policing and its Human Rights Commission, states that the COVID-19 pandemic revealed “how preexisting structural inequities created heavier burdens of disease, death, and social consequences onto communities of color in Utah.”

Utah health care leaders declared racism a public health crisis in January, and Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, sponsored a resolution to recognize racism as a statewide crisis earlier this year, though it failed to pass.

“We are publicly acknowledging the existence of a grave inequity many in our community have long experienced,” Mendenhall tweeted, “and are committing ourselves to creating policies and ordinances that are anti-racist.”

According to the resolution, data from the Utah Department of Health reveals “stark differences in health between persons of color and their white counterparts.”

For instance, the odds of COVID-19 infection were three times more likely in “very high deprivation [areas] such as Glendale and two times more likely in Rose Park, where there are high percentages of Latino and nonwhite residents.”

Latino, American Indian and Alaskan Native communities had disparities as well, with Latinos accounting for 14.2% of Utah’s population but 40% of its COVID-19 cases. American Indian and Alaskan Native communities “had a case fatality rate that is roughly three times higher than the state average.”

The resolution also noted state data that shows Black Utahns are “significantly less likely to be screened for colorectal cancer, but more likely to both contract and die from colorectal cancer,” that Black and Asian babies are more likely to have low birth weights, and that the Pacific Islander community has twice the rate of infant mortality as the statewide average.

The resolution explains that racism is defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as “a system — consisting of structures, policies, practices and norms — that assigns value and determines opportunity based on the way people look or the color of their skin,” and that racism is a serious public health threat because interpersonal and structural racism is harmful to the health of communities of color.

Outcomes from these structural inequalities can be seen through increased toxin exposure, unmet housing needs, and disparities in policing and the criminal justice system, according to the resolution. The city believes it has a moral imperative to combat racism, discrimination and all kinds of inequities, it adds, and since the city has recently moved to develop an equity plan to review all policies and “confront systems that have resulted in generational injustice and health inequities,” the council plans to take action in combating these gaps.

The council thanked multiple members of the community for their help in drafting this resolution, including the late Margarita Satini, who led the Utah Pacific Islander Civic Engagement Coalition. Satini died in October from complications of the coronavirus.

The council also thanked Kevin Nguyen, a community health worker specialist at the Utah Department of Health who also serves on the mayor’s council on diversity affairs, for bringing the resolution to the mayor and council.

“It’s incredible to hear it read out loud, you know the work that was put into this, the thought, the care, the emotions, the feelings and the dedication to the city of Salt Lake and our community members,” Nguyen said during the meeting. “These declarations are really a first important step in the movement to advance racial equity and justice, and making sure that all of our communities are taken care of.”