Ohio politician fired as ER doctor after asking whether 'colored population' more likely to get COVID-19 because they don't 'wash their hands as well'

"To me, it seemed like a dog whistle, like he was trying to make it seem like he is against racism but secretly trying to reassure the racists he was with them."

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
SUBSCRIBE
By Corky Siemaszko

An Ohio lawmaker was fired from his job as an emergency room doctor Thursday after he sparked a backlash by asking whether the "colored population" is more susceptible to the coronavirus because they "do not wash their hands as well as other groups."

State Sen. Steve Huffman, a Republican from the town of Tipp City, asked the question Tuesday during a hearing on whether to declare racism a public health crisis in Ohio — and as hundreds of people were outside the Statehouse in Columbus protesting the death of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police.

On the receiving end of Huffman's question was Angela Dawson, who heads the Ohio Commission on Minority Health. She is black.

"I understand African Americans have a higher incident of chronic conditions and that makes them more susceptible to death from COVID," Huffman said. "But why does it not 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? Could that be the explanation for the higher incidence?"

Dawson took issue with Huffman's question.

"That is not the opinion of leading medical experts in this country," Dawson said, adding later: "Do all populations need to wash their hands? Absolutely, sir. But that is not where you are going to find the variance and the rationale for why these populations are more vulnerable."

Full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak

State Sen. Tavia Galonski, who is black, told NBC News that she was floored by Huffman's question.

"To me, it seemed like a dog whistle, like he was trying to make it seem like he is against racism but secretly trying to reassure the racists he was with them," said Galonski, a Democrat. "And what makes him think black people don't wash their hands, that they're more dirty than any other group? This smacks of 'let's blame a pandemic on one group of people' so we can 'other' African Americans."

Galonski said she was also struck by Huffman's use of the word "colored." She noted that Huffman was 55 and said he "should know better" that the word is frowned upon by the African American community.

"Even if he may not have any black people in his area, does he never come in contact with black people?" Galonski asked. "Does he not know that word is loaded?"

In response to a request for comment from NBC News, Huffman's press secretary, John Fortney, released the following statement:

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

NBC News has asked Huffman whether he believes that racism does, in fact, constitute a health crisis in Ohio.

In a brief interview Wednesday with The Washington Post, Huffman insisted that his question was rhetorical and that he was not trying to insult African Americans.

"I was trying to focus on why COVID-19 affects people of color at a higher rate since we really do not know the reasons," Huffman told the newspaper.

He also said he should not have used the term "colored population."

"'People of color' would have been better, but they seem to be interchangeable," Huffman said.

Download the NBC News app for full coverage and alerts about the coronavirus outbreak

One day after that interview, TeamHealth, a Tennessee-based company that operates several hospitals in Ohio, fired Huffman.

"Dr. Huffman's comments are wholly inconsistent with our values and commitment to creating a tolerant and diverse workplace," a company spokesman said in a statement. "TeamHealth has terminated Dr. Huffman's employment."

The African American community has, indeed, been more affected by the pandemic, with higher rates of hospitalizations and deaths. But experts say the community also has higher rates of poverty and fewer people with medical insurance, so they have inferior health care.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also pointed the finger of blame at well-documented underlying medical conditions like obesity and high blood pressure that plague the African American community and often go untreated.