Ohio lawmaker asks if 'colored population' is hit hard by coronavirus because they 'don't wash their hands as well'

A GOP state lawmaker in Ohio on Tuesday asked if “the colored population” is hit harder by the coronavirus because they possibly "don’t wash their hands as well as other groups" while speaking at a hearing on whether to declare racism a public health crisis.

Ohio state Sen. Steve Huffman, an emergency room physician, asked the question during a state Senate Health Committee hearing why African Americans are being disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, the Dayton Daily News reported.

“My point is I understand African Americans have a higher incidence of chronic conditions and it makes them more susceptible to death from COVID," Huffman said. "But why doesn’t it make them more susceptible to just get COVID?”

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“Could it just be that African Americans or the colored population do not wash their hands as well as other groups or wear a mask or do not socially distance themselves? That could be the explanation of the higher incidence?”

Ohio Commission on Minority Heath Director Angela Dawson, who is black, quickly dismissed to Huffman’s question.

“That is not the opinion of leading medical experts in this country,” Dawson said, adding that COVID-19 impacts the respiratory system and makes those with chronic conditions more vulnerable to the illness.

The question posited by the state lawmaker was quickly met with criticism.

Ohio Legislative Black Caucus President Stephanie Howse (D) told the Daily News the rhetoric represented systematic racism.

“He highlights what racism is from a systematic perspective. He’s a full legislator but beyond that, professionally, he’s a doctor,” Howse said.

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“When we talk about the health disparities that happen because black folks aren’t believed when they’re actually hurt, they aren’t given the treatment that they need. Do you think that someone who acknowledges the ‘coloreds’ is going to give the love and care that people need when they come through those doors?”

Howse told the outlet that Huffman’s statement implied that African Americans are dirty and not smart enough to understand the importance of washing their hands.

State Sen. Cecil Thomas (D), who serves on the state Senate Health Committee, said audience members cringed at Huffman’s remark.

“He’s an example of why we have to have this discussion about racism and how it impacts people,” Thomas told the Daily News.

State Rep. Erica Crawley (D) said Huffman was implicating that Black people are less hygienic or clean, “which clearly isn’t the truth.”

“This right here is the underlying implicit bias/covery racism that was in the question,” Crawley wrote in a tweet.

State Rep. Tavia Galonski (D) urged residents to vote “if you want a different Ohio than this.”

Huffman responded to the criticism by telling the Dayton Daily News that some misunderstood his question.

“I was trying to focus on why COVID-19 affects people of color at a higher rate since we really do not know all the reasons,” he said.

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In a statement to The Washington Post late Wednesday, Huffman said his words had been “taken out of context” and said that he thought the phrases “people of color” and “colored population” were similar.

“People of color would have been better, but they seem to be interchangeable,” he said

He also dismissed concerns about his role as a practicing doctor.

“Anybody that comes into any emergency room, I give them the very best care regardless of what race they are,” he said.

On Thursday, Huffman expressed regret for his comments in a statement to CNN

"Regrettably, I asked a question in an unintentionally awkward way that was perceived as hurtful and was exactly the opposite of what I meant," he said. 

Both chambers of the state legislature have pending resolutions to declare racism a public health crisis amid national protests following the police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died in Minneapolis police custody last month.

The Dayton City Commission is also considering a similar resolution, according to the Dayton Daily News.