Michigan task force addressing racial disparities amid pandemic sees signs of progress

Black, minority Americans disproportionately affected by pandemic

Mourners stand outside Ebenezer Baptist Church during the funeral for Rep. John Lewis at , Thursday, July 30, 2020, in Atlanta. Lewis, who carried the struggle against racial discrimination from Southern battlegrounds of the 1960s to the halls of Congress, died Friday, July 17, 2020. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson) (Brynn Anderson, Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

A Michigan task force has been conducting research and implementing new protocols to help improve conditions for minority communities who have been severely impacted by the coronavirus pandemic -- and they have seen some notable progress so far.

In April, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer established the Michigan Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities to address issues leading to the disproportionate havoc the pandemic has wreaked on communities of color compared to white communities.

The onset of the pandemic revealed significant disparities between white and minority communities in Michigan and across the U.S., particularly in terms of virus spread and access to health care and infrastructure to curb that spread.

When the pandemic first struck, Black and minority Americans were contracting COVID-19 at higher rates than other demographic populations. In Michigan, the city of Detroit and surrounding areas in Wayne County were hit the hardest by the virus, recording the highest daily increases in virus cases and deaths in the state.

In June, a published Henry Ford study examined the characteristics of all 477 COVID-19 patients seen at their hospitals between March 9 and March 27 -- essentially the initial “peak” of the pandemic in Michigan. Of the patients treated during the study, 77 percent were Black, experts said.

Michigan governor, lieutenant governor address impact of racial disparities task force

According to data analyzed by The Associated Press (AP), in June of this year, Black COVID deaths per every 100,000 Black residents were four times the rate of white deaths per 100,000 white residents in Michigan. In May, an AP analysis of national data revealed that nearly one-third of those who had died from COVID were Black, while Black people represented about 14 percent of the population in the areas covered in the analysis.

Read: Black Americans most likely to know a COVID-19 victim

In response to the disparate numbers, Michigan’s new task force was designed to strategize and implement a more targeted coronavirus response plan in Black and minority communities, who have been disproportionately harmed by the pandemic due to existing “deep-seated inequities and systemic racism,” officials said.

“Even before the pandemic, Black Americans faced disparate challenges, such as overrepresentation in essential and frontline occupations; greater likelihood of living in multigenerational homes than White Americans; and greater likelihood of reporting fair or poor health,” reads a report published by the task force on Thursday. “These factors increase Black and African American persons’ risk of COVID-19 infection, severe outcomes, and economic hardship during the pandemic.”

In an interim report published Thursday, the task force shared what specific actions it has taken so far to address racial disparities amid the coronavirus pandemic, and their results so far. The group appears to have been working to respond to the existing racial disparities, while also laying legislative groundwork to address the root causes of those disparities.

The team -- chaired by Michigan Lieutenant Gov. Garlin Gilchrist -- has largely focused on developing a sturdy COVID-19 testing infrastructure in minority communities in an effort to increase access to testing to identify and curb virus spread. Since the task force was created, more than 20 “Neighborhood Testing sites” have been established in previously-underserved communities throughout Michigan, the state reports. These testing sites offer no-cost COVID testing to individuals without requiring insurance, a prescription or any form of identification.

According to the task force’s report, more than 24,000 tests have been administered at these sites as of Nov. 16. Officials report that the average number of new COVID cases reported per million residents per day for Black Michiganders dropped from 176 in March and April to 59 in September and October. Perhaps more significantly, during that same time period, the number of “probable” COVID deaths recorded per million Black Michiganders per day reportedly decreased from 21.7 to 1.

“From the beginning, our administration has listened to medical experts and taken a fact-based approach to eliminating COVID-19 in our most vulnerable communities, and we have seen significant progress,” Gov. Whitmer said in a statement. “Lieutenant Governor Gilchrist and the leaders on the Task Force have been crucial in helping us dramatically reduce the number of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths in communities of color by expanding testing and providing crucial support to community organizations. Our work is far from over, and cases and hospitalizations are still rising statewide, but this team remains dedicated to working with medical experts and protecting our communities, frontline workers, and small businesses. Our immediate focus now is holding our progress, flattening the infection curve, and remaining vigilant with mask wearing and social distancing.”

Related: Coronavirus spread lower in Detroit than neighboring counties, but still growing

In addition to increased COVID testing, the task force reports that it has been working to connect minority communities with important resources and programs to help offset the pandemic’s financial impact.

According to the report, the group has been working to block foreclosures and water shutoffs in vulnerable communities. Other resources, such as utility assistance and personal protective equipment, have also been offered to these communities. Officials say that more than six million free face masks have been delivered to vulnerable Michigan populations so far.

Below is a table of the task force’s achievements to date, as listed in Thursday’s report.

The achievements listed above are explained in more detail in the group’s report here.

“The coronavirus pandemic has shined a light on the health, economic, and educational challenges that communities of color face daily,” Lt. Governor Gilchrist said. “(This) report shows that significant progress has been made toward our goal to reduce these disparities over the past six months. But as cases continue to rise, we need to recognize that our work is not done because each of us have a role to play to make sure that we defeat this virus. When we successfully make it to the other side of this pandemic, we will hug each other a little tighter, check in on each other a little more, and be proud of the work we did to make each other’s lives better.”

Another priority of the task force is to increase vulnerable community members’ access to health care providers, especially virtually. Moving forward, the group intends to close the “digital divide” by ensuring minority communities have better access to internet, telehealth services and virtual learning.

The task force is also planning to: increase the public’s access to and awareness of health insurance options; build a mobile COVID-19 testing infrastructure that could also potentially distribute vaccinations once they’re available; and raise awareness of racial and ethnic disparities in medical care, officials report.

“It’s clear that the work of this task force ... has made significant progress in protecting families, frontline workers, and small businesses in communities of color,” said Celeste Sanchez Lloyd, task force member and community program manager for Strong Beginnings at Spectrum Health. “As the weather gets colder and as we head into the holiday season, our most vulnerable communities will continue to need crucial support. We are committed to continuing to provide that support and work closely with the governor as she listens to health experts and takes a fact-based approach to ending the COVID-19 pandemic.”

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About the Author:

Cassidy Johncox is a senior digital news editor covering stories across the spectrum, with a special focus on politics and community issues.