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Task force created to combat COVID-19 racial disparities in Michigan finds success, but challenges lie ahead

By: - March 8, 2022 9:34 am

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At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, a disturbing trend emerged that worried health officials: the virus was killing an alarming number of Black residents in Michigan.

As a result, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer assembled the Michigan Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities to examine the inequalities and develop a plan to reduce them.

Chaired by Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II, the task force on Friday released a report that includes recommendations to better protect communities of color from the spread of COVID-19 and create structural change.

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist during a COVID-19 vaccination site press announcement at Ford Field in Detroit on March 18, 2021 | Ken Coleman photo

“When we saw that COVID-19 was uniquely lethal in communities of color in Michigan, Governor Whitmer and I knew we had to act quickly,” Gilchrist said Friday. “Two years later, the successes of the Michigan Coronavirus Racial Disparities Task Force in balancing short-term needs with long- term goals have made it a national model on responding to racial disparities and flattening inequities. But we know there is more work to do – which is why I am proud to join the Task Force in releasing these recommendations to help us chart the way forward. Governor Whitmer and I look forward to continuing to work with the Task Force to protect Michigan communities and save lives.”

The task force recommended improving the collection of racial data, decreasing the number of uninsured and underinsured residents, increasing vaccination rates, and continuing to fund neighborhood testing and inoculation sites.

Just a month into the pandemic in April 2020, Black people made up 40% of the COVID-19 deaths and a third of the infections, even though they represented just 13.6% of the population. As local and state health scrambled to address the disparities, the numbers began to decline.

Officials increased testing in communities of color, expanded testing to the most at-risk for serious illness, improved racial data collection and provided access to health care for marginalized populations, according to the report.

But despite the progress, COVID-19 continues to impact a disproportionate number of Black people.

“While Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native and Hispanic or Latino communities continue to be disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in Michigan, the Task Force has made significant progress in reducing disparities,” a task force report states.

“The death rate in the first wave was 15.6 per million and was reduced to 4.5 per million in the third wave. Michigan has been able to sustain its progress on flattening disparities, even in the face of the spread of COVID-19.”

One of the lingering challenges is disparities in the vaccination rate. In Michigan, only about 40% of Black residents are vaccinated, compared to nearly 53% of white residents.

Former state Rep. Thomas Stallworth III, director of the task force, said it’s critical to act on the recommendations.

“The members of this Task Force have worked tirelessly with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to develop recommendations to address this crisis that exposed the long-standing inequities for Black Michiganders that have persisted for decades,” Stallworth said. “Now we must make sure to turn these recommendations into actions that reduce and eventually eliminate the racial disparities impacting the health of Michiganders.”

This story first ran in the Detroit Metro Times. Subscribe to their newsletters, and follow them on Google News, Apple News, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or Reddit.

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Steve Neavling
Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling is an award-winning investigative journalist with the Detroit Metro Times. He operated Motor City Muckraker, an online news site devoted to exposing abuses of power and holding public officials accountable. Neavling also hosted Muckraker Report on 910AM from September 2017 to July 2018. Before launching Motor City Muckraker, Neavling was a five-year veteran of the Detroit Free Press, covering Detroit’s city hall.