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City councilors want health authorities to consider systemic racism when it comes to medical resources

Boston City Hall last week.Maddie Meyer/Getty

Boston city councilors are calling for local hospitals and health authorities to consider how systemic racism causes public health disparities, a reality that has taken on added urgency as officials draft and enact policies about how to distribute life-saving medical resources amid a COVID-19 surge.

“Racism is the driving force behind health inequities,” said Councilor Ricardo Arroyo at Wednesday afternoon’s council meeting, which was held virtually via Zoom.

Earlier in the month, state health officials issued guidelines to help hospitals make gut-wrenching decisions about how to ration ventilators, should they become overwhelmed with coronavirus patients. The guidance is not mandatory and specifically says choices should not be made on the basis of race, immigration status, disabilities, or socioeconomic status, but recommends hospitals assign patients a score that gives preference to healthier patients who have a greater chance of surviving their illness, and living longer overall.

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But Arroyo said that denying ventilators and intensive care beds based on preexisting conditions would represent a continuation of systemic racism.

He specifically pointed to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, saying earlier this month that the medical authorities are “aware that diseases like diabetes, hypertension, obesity and asthma are prevalent in communities of color and that COVID-19 patients with those . . . underlying conditions often require ventilators and intensive care and have the highest likelihood of death due to COVID-19.”

Councilor Andrea Campbell said public health disparities “did not happen by accident.”

“They are the result of race and racism," she said during the meeting.

Campbell pointed to statistics that show Boston’s Black residents make up more than 40 percent of the city’s coronavirus cases where data on race are available, while comprising only about 25 percent of the city’s population. She called such data extremely troubling. Of the confirmed cases in Boston, 64 percent have known race and ethnicity data. Campbell acknowledged the numbers were incomplete but suggested that the full case statistics could be even more disproportionate in terms of race.

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“I think one of the things we’re hearing with respect to these guidelines is that we’re not taking race into consideration,” she said. “That’s a total mistake.”

For solutions to the pandemic, local officials should use “a racial equity and resiliency lens,” she said.

Campbell wanted to hear from local hospitals about how they are handling the state’s public health recommendations and details of local medical care policies amid the pandemic.

The council’s public health committee is slated to hold a public hearing on the matter.

Mayor Martin J. Walsh, at an afternoon news conference, said the city monitors available medical resources in local hospitals daily, adding that the health authorities would like more ventilators.

As of Tuesday, Boston had more than 4,200 confirmed coronavirus cases among its residents. There have been 84 deaths of people with COVID-19 in the city.

Councilors on Wednesday also called for city officials to look for ways to improve language access regarding pandemic resources.

While the city’s COVID-19 website and other city materials “are being updated and translated daily,” there is a delay in translation that can lead to “confusion and misinformation,” according to an order pushing for a hearing on the matter from Councilors Julia Mejia and Ed Flynn.

Such a delay can mean that non-English speakers are at a disadvantage when it comes to government relief, since many of those opportunities are first-come, first-serve, according to the councilors.

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“This is an opportunity to uplift the voices of those who have been facing discrimination as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, like our Asian American community, as well as those who have been experiencing higher-than-average rates of infection but have been historically kept out of the process,” Flynn and Mejia wrote in the order.

According to city authorities, more than 140 languages are spoken in Boston, and the number of residents who speak English “less than very well” tops 111,000.

Walsh, at the news conference, said language access has been at the forefront of the city’s pandemic response. The city has made text alerts available in six languages and has posted online coronavirus updates in 10 languages, in addition to English, according to his office.

Liz Kowalczyk of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.