A large swath of south Lansing is the statistical epicenter for coronavirus in Ingham County.
Data released this week by the Ingham County Health Department shows that more coronavirus cases have been detected in zip code 48911 than anywhere else in the county. The latest official count there tallies 131 to 140 cases, or at least 25% of the county’s 521 confirmed cases.
But why? Does something make south Lansing residents more susceptible to the virus? Is the region just more densely populated than other areas of the county? Are they taking more risks?
The short answer: Nobody quite knows. But county officials are searching for answers.
“I do think that there’s more data that we need to know,” explained Debbie Edokpolo, a deputy health officer for the county. “It’s disproportionately affected, but the reason? We don’t know all of that yet. I do think there’s some more data we probably need to find, like where are some of those folks interacting with COVID-19? What access do they have to different things there?”
Edokpolo, who heads up the county Health Department’s “special populations” operations, expected additional demographic data to shed some light on the problem over the coming weeks.
In the meantime, Health Officer Linda Vail has a hunch about what’s causing the trend.
Zip code 48911 has an estimated population of about 40,000 people — or about a third of Lansing’s 118,000 residents. It would only make sense that some of the more heavily populated areas of the county would also have a higher number of confirmed COVID-19 cases, Vail said.
Additionally, Vail said residents in that portion of the capital city — a chunk of mostly south Lansing including portions of Delta and Delhi townships — are also heavily African American. And as state statistics show, this virus has had a disproportionate impact on black residents.
“Living as a person of color undergirds all of the other health issues that disproportionately impact that population like diabetes and high blood pressure and things like that,” Vail added. “We also need to consider that staying home is the right thing to do, but it’s also a privilege.”
Health differences between racial groups are often due to economic and social conditions that are more common among some racial minorities than whites. In public health emergencies, these conditions can also isolate people from the resources they need to prepare for outbreaks.
Vail estimates that about 27% of residents living in zip code 48911 are black, compared to just 22% across the rest of the city. That section of the city is also filled more heavily with apartment buildings and hundreds of businesses that remain open throughout the pandemic.
“Social distancing in itself is a privilege,” Vail said. “We have restaurant employees doing curbside pickup, grocery stores, places like Lowe’s and Home Depot that are still open. Those employees still see a lot of people and tend to be low-income residents and people of color.”
Across Michigan, white people are 79% of the population while blacks are 14%. Yet white people account for 34% of cases and 49% of deaths, while African Americans compose 32% of cases and 41% of deaths.
The state has launched a task force to address the disparities with Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist leading it. Dr. Renee Branch Canady, the CEO of the Michigan Public Health Institute, is on that team.
“Race is not a risk factor,” Canady said. “There is nothing scientific about the fact that people of color are having higher rates of this particular disease. We believe that race is really more of a measure of a social condition, not just a personal characteristic. One of the things we’re clear about is that the COVID-19 numbers demonstrate that inequality and powerlessness can make us sick.”
Canady said a variety of factors can cause one geographic area to have more cases than another, like access to health care and testing, poverty levels and the type of employment and housing. Unfortunately, regions that struggle in those areas tend to include more people of color, she said.
Gilchrist also said the task force will create relationships with doctors who can help people of color not only during the crisis but afterward, when they need help with underlying conditions. Edokpolo and Vail are mirroring those same sorts of efforts at the county Health Department.
“Those are some things we should look at as we come out of this,” Edokpolo added. “How do we better support families and individuals in that area? As a person of color, I don’t like it either.”
Zip code 48911 is bordered near Waverly Road to the west, Willoughby Road to the south, Aurelius Road to the east and Jolly Road to the north. An outlying western portion also dips north of Jolly Road, extending north toward Mt. Hope Road to include Moores River Drive.
City Councilman Adam Hussain lives within its boundaries.
“We have to acknowledge that it is most certainly a symptom of poverty and the adverse environmental circumstances plaguing our most impoverished neighborhoods,” Hussain said.
“Our most impoverished neighborhoods are deficient when it comes to these resources and, consequently, our people disproportionately suffer from the underlying health conditions that make one susceptible to severe illness due to COVID-19,” Hussain added, noting studies have proven that health outcomes are inextricably linked to factors like housing and public safety.
Hussain said the scarcity of healthy restaurant options and fast-food joints in south Lansing is a problem, as well as the general lack of investment and economic development in the area. Dense, low-income housing paired with predatory landlords continue to tilt the playing field.
“I sincerely hope it has been a wakeup call for everyone charged with supporting our citizens and the next time we are faced with a pandemic, we have facilitated the necessary change that reduces the risk of exposure and severity of illness associated with the pathogen,” Hussain said.
Ingham County zip codes with the most COVID-19 cases:
48911: 131-141 cases
48910: 61-70 cases
48823: 51-60 cases
48854: 41-50 cases
48864 & 48842: 31-40 cases
48906 & 48912: 21-30 cases
48906 & 48917: 11-20 cases
Source: Ingham County Health Department