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

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall and Salt Lake City Council adopted a joint resolution on Tuesday, July 20, 2021, declaring racism a public health crisis.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall and Salt Lake City Council adopted a joint resolution on Tuesday, July 20, 2021, declaring racism a public health crisis. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake City Council and Mayor Erin Mendenhall adopted a joint resolution on Tuesday declaring racism a public health crisis.

The resolution acknowledged that racism — both interpersonal and structural — has harmful effects on the mental and physical health of communities of color resulting in significant health disparities.

"Racism is a key driver of the determinants of health, shaping access to these resources such as education, housing, employment, and health care that creates opportunities for health," the resolution stated.

Those effects of preexisting structural equalities were amplified by the COVID-19 health crisis with communities of color experiencing "heavier burdens of disease, death and social consequences," according to the resolution.

The declaration comes after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that racism was a serious public health threat in April. CDC Director Rochelle P. Walensky said that to address some of the health disparities, the public health agency was making investments "in racial and ethnic minority communities and other disproportionately affected communities around the country."

Some of those disproportionately affected communities were pointed to in the Salt Lake City Council's resolution, using data from the Utah Department of Health showing that during the pandemic:

  • Odds of infection were three times more likely in Salt Lake City's Glendale neighborhood and two times more likely in Rose Park, where there are high percentages of Latino and nonwhite residents.
  • Latino communities account for 14.2% of Utah's population, but 40% of the state's COVID-19 cases.
  • American Indian and Alaskan Native communities in Utah had a case fatality rate that is roughly three times higher than the state average.

But the health disparities among communities of color were simply highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic and existed before it, the resolution argues. Additional data showed that Black people in Utah are significantly less likely to be screened for colorectal cancer, but are three times more likely to both contract and die from colorectal cancer. Other disparities included Black and Asian families being more likely to have a low birth rate and Pacific Islanders' rate of infant mortality being twice the statewide average.

"There is no doubt of the crisis. Our society is burdened with bigotry and all the hatred that comes with it," Council Chairwoman Amy Fowler said in a release. "Indeed, it is a moral imperative to combat racism, discrimination, and inequities in all their forms."

The resolution commits that as Salt Lake City, including its council and leaders, continues forward, it will be conscious of the policies and ordinances created to ensure that inequities are not furthered and that the damage from structural racism is addressed.

The resolution argues that inequities and structural racism can be seen in things such as increased exposure to environmental toxins, unmet housing needs, and disparities in policing and the criminal justice system — all topics on which Mendenhall and Salt Lake City have issued executive orders, ordinances or created goals to combat.

Some of those include:

The resolution also announced that Salt Lake City officials will continue to work with the county health officials to review and report public health data to determine the next steps, current tasks, make the data available online to increase transparency and utilize staff from multiple agencies to address public health barriers.

"This is an important declaration for us to make as a city. Not only are we publicly acknowledging the existence of a grave inequity that many in our community have known and experienced for so long, we are also committing ourselves to the creation of policies and ordinances that are anti-racist," Mendenhall said in the release.

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