Lawmaker asks if ‘colored population’ not washing their hands as well as others behind COVID rates

Lawmaker fired from physician job; groups call for him to resign seat after ‘colored’ comment

State Sen. Steve Huffman says his question was asked in a ‘unintentionally awkward’ way.

During a senate hearing on Tuesday, state Sen. Steve Huffman, R-Tipp City, asked if “the colored population” is hit harder by the coronavirus because perhaps they don’t wash their hands as well as other groups.

Late Thursday, Huffman posted a lengthy apology on his Facebook page that said in part: “I had absolutely no malicious intent, but I recognize that my choice of words was unacceptable and hurtful. I apologize, and I make no excuses. Those who know me will tell you that I have nothing but love and respect for all people, and I would never intentionally disrespect or denigrate anyone for any reason.”

He added that he is reaching out to those he offended to ask for their forgiveness, their input and their guidance “on how we can turn this mistake into a time of learning as we work together to build a better Ohio.”

The ACLU of Ohio, Ohio Legislative Black Caucus Foundation and SIEU District 1199 called on Huffman to resign his state senate seat. Senate President Larry Obhof, R-Medina, did not respond to a request for a response.

A TeamHealth spokesman issued a statement: “Dr. Huffman’s comments are wholly inconsistent with our values and commitment to creating a tolerant and diverse workplace. TeamHealth has terminated Dr. Huffman’s employment.”

Premier Health, which owns Upper Valley Medical Center where Huffman has practiced medicine, said in a written statement Thursday: “Dr. Huffman is not employed by Premier Health. Premier Health condemns and does not tolerate racism or any kind of discrimination, and we have long-standing mechanisms in place to address expectations and accountability.”

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OLBC President Stephanie Howse, D-Cleveland, said in a statement: “The fact that a well-educated legislator, a vice chair of the Health Committee and a practicing medical doctor would, in a public setting, nonchalantly use such antiquated terminology paired with a hurtful, racist stereotype all in one breath reflects how unconscious this problem of racism is for too many.

“Because he is not alone in the way he talks and the biases he holds. Black Ohioans have spent the last several days teaching lessons to people just like him about racism and trying to verbalize the pain we are feeling right now so others can better understand the black experience. We are tired of these conversations, but we must not stop.”

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Huffman, an emergency room physician, asked a witness before the Senate Health Committee on Tuesday why COVID-19 is hitting African Americans harder than white people.

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

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Ohio Commission on Minority Health Director Angela Dawson responded to Huffman: “That is not the opinion of leading medical experts in this country.” COVID-19 impacts the respiratory system so those with chronic conditions are more vulnerable, she said.

Ohio NAACP President Tom Roberts, a former state lawmaker who previously represented Huffman’s district said, “It is just unbelievable he would ask that kind of question or use that kind of terminology.”

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