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'The Pandemic Didn't Introduce Us To These Disparities': Lt. Gov. Discusses Race And COVID-19

COVID-19 has had a profound impact on Michigan’s communities of color.

Research has found during the first four months of the pandemic, the COVID death rate for African American Michiganders was nearly 7 times higher than white ones.

In September, the state’s Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities declared significant progress had been made in reducing the impact the disease has had on people of color.

WKAR’s Sophia Saliby spoke with Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist who heads up that task force.

Interview Highlights

On How He’s Leading The State’s Coronavirus Task Force On Racial Disparities

The governor created it via executive order, asked me to be the chair and I wanted it to be different, frankly, than other task forces. Sometimes, a task force meets and gets a lot of great minds together, you have meetings and your output is a report with a set of recommendations. Well, this task force needed to be different because people are getting sick and dying every single day. So, this task force had two charges: one, to respond in real time to reduce the mortality rate of COVID-19. The second charge was to then how do we connect to the longer-term work to reduce health disparities overall.

On How The State Is Looking Beyond Just COVID To Address Disparities

We tried to design our state level responses to those economic supports, for example, to try to accommodate those and make sure that we have resources available specifically for these hard-hit communities in hard-hit areas, recognizing that, again, this disparity goes beyond health, but the pandemic didn't introduce us to these disparities, the pandemic has, if anything, exacerbated existing ones.

On How The State Will Build Trust For The Vaccine

Vaccine hesitancy is a real thing. There are Black folks who have real questions or people in our tribal nations who have real questions, and so we established the Protect Michigan Commission, for example, to try to address those head on and to say, "We know there are questions. The questions are legitimate, and those questions have answers."

Interview Transcript

Sophia Saliby: This is All Things Considered on WKAR. I’m Sophia Saliby.

COVID-19 has had a profound impact on Michigan’s communities of color.

Research has found during the first four months of the pandemic, the COVID death rate for African American Michiganders was nearly 7 times higher than white ones.

In September, the state’s Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities declared significant progress had been made in reducing the impact the disease has had on people of color.

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist heads up that task force. He joins me now to discuss the continued work the group is doing. Thank you for being here.

Garlin Gilchrist: Sophia, thank you for having me.

Saliby: When did you find out or how were you first alerted that COVID-19 was affecting more African American Michiganders in more significant ways than white residents?

Gilchrist: Our first case was on March 10, 2020, but a month before that, in early February, our State Department of Health and Human Services, really under the leadership of our chief medical executive, Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, anticipated that there may be visible disparities in how this virus showed itself in our state.

And so, she got to work even then, after activating our state's Health Emergency Response Center, got to work with local health departments and hospital systems to try to instrument their systems and processes to be able to collect demographic data that included race on COVID-19 deaths and cases because the system was not set up to do that, naturally.

And so, we were able to collect this data actually from the very beginning, and it only took a few weeks for it to become clear that this death rate was very, very significant and significantly different across communities of color and Black communities in our state.

To give you some perspective, Black folks, we make up 13.6% of the population in the state of Michigan. We accounted for 41% of deaths in March and in April.

You know, to give you some perspective, Black folks, we make up 13.6% of the population in the state of Michigan. We accounted for 41% of deaths in March and in April. In those first few weeks after seeing this disparity, and it being so deadly, and recognizing that we needed to get to work now. There were people dying, and we needed to try to intervene quickly. And that is why we pulled together this task force.

The governor created it via executive order, asked me to be the chair and I wanted it to be different, frankly, than other task forces. Sometimes, a task force meets and gets a lot of great minds together, you have meetings and your output is a report with a set of recommendations. Well, this task force needed to be different because people are getting sick and dying every single day.

This task force needed to be different because people are getting sick and dying every single day.

So, this task force had two charges: one, to respond in real time to reduce the mortality rate of COVID-19. The second charge was to, then, how do we connect to the longer-term work to reduce health disparities overall.

Saliby: So, it took about six months for the state to essentially close that gap. Can you tell me what strategies worked and what didn't to get us to that point?

Gilchrist: The most important thing is that the state of Michigan decided to prioritize and center the experiences of some of the most vulnerable people and communities of color in the state of Michigan, and have that be a core element of our state response. And frankly, that is something that strengthened our overall state response.

Michigan has been shown to be a leader in closing these racial disparities, and there are a number of interventions we did. On a basic level, we distributed more than 6 million masks for free across the state of Michigan, including 2 million child size masks, because the research showed that masks were a simple and effective way to slow the spread.

We also invested in a communications campaign that was targeting our communities of color across the state of Michigan, on radio, TV, but [also] social media, print in ethnic publications and things like that. So, people can know how important it was to follow the public health and public safety protocols, to wear your masks [and] to social distance.

It was important to get tested to know your COVID-19 status, and so we really worked to make sure that as we made testing more available and accessible because it wasn't in a lot of communities of color. We created 21 neighborhood testing sites at community organizations across the state that were in the most hard-hit areas of the state of Michigan.

It's the totality of the interventions that are the result of the focus of the state on centering communities of color that made a difference.

We declared racism a public health crisis, and part of that was to unlock, frankly, the potential for state government to examine all of its programs and systems and understand how racism and prejudice may have played a factor into their design, and how that could be contributing to poor health outcomes and lower resilience in our communities.

So, working on these kinds of things, now we're sort of flipping that infrastructure to support vaccination. And so, these are some of the interventions that led to those results that we saw in our interim report we released which showed that rather than representing 40% of the deaths in the first few months of pandemic, in the last few months of 2020, Black folks represented less than 10% of people who die to COVID-19 [and] less than 9% of the cases. And so, it's not any one intervention, it's the totality of the interventions that are the result of the focus of the state on centering communities of color that made a difference.

Saliby: A recent study from the University of Michigan found that Black Michiganders with COVID-19 suffer worse health and socioeconomic outcomes than white residents with the disease. How are you taking on these new disparities that are starting to present themselves?

Gilchrist: The increased vulnerability in terms of, for example, people of color being overrepresented in the types of professions that have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, like the service industry.

For Black entrepreneurs whose businesses have been disproportionately negatively impacted because those may be businesses that were less likely to have the type of banking relationship that you needed to benefit from the Paycheck Protection Program or had those kinds of existing relationships, and may have been undercapitalized, which had made it difficult to survive during this pandemic.

We tried to design our state level responses to those economic supports, for example, to try to accommodate those and make sure that we have resources available specifically for these hard-hit communities in hard-hit areas, recognizing that, again, this disparity goes beyond health, but the pandemic didn't introduce us to these disparities, the pandemic has, if anything, exacerbated existing ones.

The pandemic didn't introduce us to these disparities, the pandemic has, if anything, exacerbated existing ones.

Saliby: You mentioned earlier the state is now turning to focus on vaccination efforts. The state is also reporting data on the age and gender breakdown of who's getting the vaccine, but there's no public data on race. Can you explain why that is not being either collected or shared?

Gilchrist: Yeah, so we're working to build up that infrastructure, just like I explained in the beginning of the pandemic, where there needed to be a bunch of pre-work to figure out how to collect and report that data when it came to COVID-19 tests, results, and fatalities. We're doing that same work to make sure that we can have that to report comprehensively on vaccines as well.

And now that being said, you know, look, we've learned a lot about racial disparities this year in Michigan. We've been very public about what we've learned, and so we recognize that there's work to be done on the front end to try to reduce that disparity when it comes to vaccination rates.

Vaccine hesitancy is a real thing. There are Black folks who have real questions or people in our tribal nations who have real questions.

Vaccine hesitancy is a real thing. There are Black folks who have real questions or people in our tribal nations who have real questions, and so we established the Protect Michigan Commission, for example, to try to address those head on and to say, "We know there are questions. The questions are legitimate, and those questions have answers."

So, we're working through that on a system level, to make sure that we get it and will report it as soon as we're able. In the meantime, we have already been upfront about what we want to do to deal with this problem because the CDC has released data that has shown, for example, that Black folks have been underrepresented in the group of people who've been vaccinated with at least one dose thus far. So, we know that there is potential for a big issue, and that is why equity is built into our vaccine allocation strategy.

For example, we're one of the only states that is using things like the social vulnerability index from the CDC, which is something that we used to target testing to communities of color, and think about how we can target our allocation of vaccine doses for that same reason to address the needs of those communities that were hardest hit by this pandemic and our most vulnerable overall.

So, we think that that's going to bear fruit in Michigan and we're working to collect the data that we'll be able to report, hopefully very soon that can then show and track our progress.

Saliby: Garlin Gilchrist is the state's Lieutenant Governor. He heads up the state's Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities. Thank you for joining me.

Gilchrist: Thank you Sophia. Everyone, please be safe.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

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