As the novel coronavirus began to hit Michigan last spring, the disparity of whom it was killing quickly came into stark relief. Black Michiganians represented less than 14% of the state’s overall population, but in that first month they represented at least 41% of the deaths.
“We were concerned about this disparity potentially being present,” Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist said in an exclusive interview with City Pulse, “and that’s why Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, our chief medical executive, before we even had our first case, she worked with local health departments and hospital systems to outfit our public health infrastructure to even track demographic data that included race and ethnicity. Then once we saw these disparities that were so rampant and so deadly, Michigan became a leader in the nation.”
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer quickly realized the disparate outcomes and burden required a state response, leading to the creation of the Michigan Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities. Gilchrist, Michigan’s first black lieutenant governor, was tapped to lead it.
Task forces like this often move along doing the research and putting together reports with recommendations, but “people were dying in real time,” he said. It required some quick moves.
“I was getting text messages and calls and emails about friends, family, former colleagues, passing away from COVID-19 every single day,” he said. “Throughout this pandemic, I’ve said goodbye to 27 people from COVID-19. So it was important that we actually recommended and enacted interventions in real time to stop people from getting sick and for saving lives.”
The task force moved with speed, identifying not only the underlying structural causes of the disparate outcomes, but finding ways to eliminate or reduce those barriers.
Officials quickly realized they faced a daunting task of addressing not only the immediate inequities driving an extraordinary disparity between outcomes for people of color and white people in Michigan who contracted COVID-19, but that it was staring down the systemic barriers that created an unequal health outcome in the first place.
To address the crisis immediately, the task force drove recommendations to increase testing in communities of color by actually going into those communities instead of relying on the communities to come to them. Those neighborhood testing sites conducted nearly 25,000 tests from the end of August and Nov. 16, when the task force interim report was released. The red tape associated with testing — such as cost, insurance and the requirement that a doctor order the test — were all waived.
“We did this partnership with Ford Motor Co. for these specially outfitted mobile vehicles that could drive testing to a vulnerable community, to a church, to a jail, to a park, to a homeless shelter, a flexible platform, to a farm where migrant workers needed to be tested,” Gilchrist said.
And that wasn’t all. Using the state insurance program, the task force developed systems to connect communities of color with insurance coverage and primary care. By doing that, the disproportionate impact of underlying diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure and asthma could be addressed, reducing the potential impact on a person if they got COVID-19.
In June, the task force pushed the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to highlight the race of people being tested and testing positive for the virus in weekly statistical data updates. The percent of people whose race was unknown went from 30 percent to 20 percent, even as the number of tests ramped up in October.
But the task force also found that communities of color were also more likely to be facing food and housing insecurity, work low wage frontline jobs and to have less access to personal protection equipment to prevent getting coronavirus. Leveraging federal dollars, the state partnered with 31 community organizations to leverage $32 million to address those needs.
Data shows it is working. In the last three months of 2020, the task force’s interim report tracked far fewer Black deaths than what was reported at the onset in March and April. Gilchrist said that rate plunged from 41% to less than 10% of deaths tracked among people of color.
“Michigan has shown that when you focus on addressing racial disparities, you can improve them,” Gilchrist added. “So we’ve made progress. That progress is fragile.”
Gilchrist noted that state officials are working to push out demographic data on vaccine distribution as well, although no timeframe currently exists, he said.
“We have to remain vigilant,” he said. “We are making sure that we’re using the same source of targeting measures when it comes to social vulnerability and things like that with our vaccine rollout that we were using with our other strategies with the task force. We hope that that will bear fruit there as well.”