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Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist COURTESY PHOTO

State officials say progress is being made on COVID-19 racial disparities

BY Thursday, December 03, 2020 04:00pm

Michigan has made progress since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic to address racial disparities and reduce the death and infection rates among African Americans, state officials say.

At a press conference Thursday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer credited state initiatives recommended by a task force for a reduction in the death rate among Black residents with COVID-19. 

The number of average daily cases per million among African Americans declined to 59 in September from 176 recorded in March and April, Whitmer said. Deaths from COVID-19 among African Americans in Michigan declined to one per million in the fall from 21.7 last spring.

“Our state has seen significant progress,” Whitmer said. “We have emerged as a national leader in reducing these disparities during COVID-19.”

Whitmer created the Michigan Task Force on Racial Disparities by executive order in the spring after data showed Black residents — who make up about 14 percent of the state’s population — accounted for more than 40 percent of all COVID-19 cases and deaths. The task force worked to break down racial bias and barriers to accessing care, and today issued an interim report on its progress.

Between Aug. 28 and Nov. 16, state-operated neighborhood testing sites administered more than 24,600 free tests to what Whitmer described as “previously underserved communities.”

In September, the state provided 31 grants totaling more than $21 million from federal CARES Act funding to local organizations to address food and housing insecurity, increasing access testing and flu vaccines, and improving contact tracing.

“The data is clear and the actions of our administration and the Racial Disparities Task Force have saved lives and protected our most vulnerable populations,” Whitmer said. “We’ve helped reduce the number of COVID-19 infections in communities at high risk of spread with elevated risk of severe outcomes.”

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, who chairs the Racial Disparities Task Force, said that in the early days of the pandemic, COVID-19 was killing Black residents at a rate five times higher than white residents. The most recent data shows Black residents now account for 9.1 percent of all cases and 5.7 percent of COVID-19 deaths.

“Since the beginning of this global pandemic, the coronavirus has really shined a light on the health, economic and educational challenges that Black communities and, frankly, most communities of color face on a daily basis,” Gilchrist said. “We have shown that it is possible to reduce the disparities.”

Amid the progress on the task force’s short-term goals, “the work is not done,” Gilchrist said, stressing that today’s report was “interim.”

Longer term, the task force recommends the state work to close the co-called “digital divide” and racial disparities in internet access to enable telehealth and remote learning, increase enrollment in health plans, establish more mobile testing facilities that also could administer vaccines, and raise greater awareness of racial and ethnic disparities in health care.

“More than any particular intervention, it is the prioritized attention that our state has placed on reducing these disparities and on resourcing and protecting these more vulnerable Michiganders that has led to these outcomes,” Gilchrist said. “These are real actions that we have put into place to help reduce disparities for communities of color, but our work is, frankly, still just beginning. Going forward, this task force will continue to identify and recommend immediate and long-term solutions to disparities caused by this pandemic.”

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